Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Spirituality of Mardi Gras

"Today I will Soar"
  - At the Desert Retreat House -

Lots of “Mardi Gras” celebrations are going on today. Traditionally known as “Fat Tuesday” or sometimes “Shrove Tuesday,” this is the day before the season of Lent begins on the Christian calendar.

The custom of engaging in “wild and crazy” parties on the day before Lent goes back as far as the Middle Ages.  Lent was a forty day period of intense fasting from food and drink, a season to refrain from play and pleasure and repent for sin committed during the year. In medieval times, on the day (or days) before Lent,  people would gorge themselves with the richest foods available, often drink to excess and dance in the streets, partying throughout the night – one “last fling" before morning came and the lean and mean season of Lent arrived.  

Actually, the basic idea of "Mardi Gras" hasn’t really changed all that much since medieval times.  For many people who observe Lent, today is a “last-ditch” chance for enjoying life before buckling down for the serious and often gloomy business of spirituality. 

I actually think of “Mardi Gras” in a very different way.

For one thing, I don’t at all believe that a spiritual journey is ever a heavy burden, a path devoid of pleasure or joy of any kind. On the contrary, I think that a spiritual path leads us to richer, fuller, deeper and more joyful lives. As I see it,  “Fat Tuesday” (Mardi Gras) is an occasion for all of us to do a spiritual inventory asking what it is that may be keeping us from the joy of being fully alive. After we do that inventory we are ready to begin the journey of Lent.

It seems to me that whether or not you are Christian or even if you believe in “God,” each and every one of us is on some sort of spiritual journey - we all seek deeper truth, greater wisdom, peace and happiness as we walk the path of our lives. Interestingly enough, when I look at the great wisdom traditions of most world religions, I find that they all offer a very similar piece of advice about the spiritual journey: travel lightly.

In the Christian scriptures, before sending out his disciples on a mission to spread the good news about the Kingdom of God, Jesus told them to take nothing for their journey, no bags filled with their things, only a walking stick and the clothes on their backs. This is a poignant metaphor that helps me understand what the Lenten season that begins tomorrow actually means.

Like many wisdom teachers of the major world religions, Jesus taught that we find deeper peace when we travel lightly through our lives, without the being too attached to all the stuff that weighs us down. When we walk through life with our travel bags filled to the brim with our our possessions, prejudices, addictions and tightly-held ideas, we will always be bogged down on the journey to richer and fuller life.  

The season of Lent that begins tomorrow is not a season for gloom and doom, it is a season for learning how to travel lightly—a season for letting go of all those things that bog us down, attaching us to our suffering in life; and even if you don’t celebrate Lent, this day before Lent begins is a wonderful occasion for all of us to identify and get rid of all the unnecessary stuff that weighs us down along life's way.

Priest and author Richard Rohr makes this wise observation:

In all the global wisdom traditions,
authentic spirituality always involves letting go.
In our consumer society we are told that more is supposed to be better
but once we see what is trapping us and keeping us from freedom
we should see the need to let it go.
True liberation is letting go of our false self, letting go of our cultural biases.
Freedom is letting go of obsessively wanting more and better things,
letting go of our fear of loss and death.
Freedom is letting go of our need to control and manipulate God and others
and letting go of our need to always be right.

Mardi Gras time isn’t a last chance for having fun before beginning the grueling work of spiritual disciplines;  rather today is a day to cut away the chains so that we can embrace newer and fuller life.

A while back I came upon a poem that wonderfully expresses a Mardi Gras spirituality:

Flapping, flapping, not yet ready to fly.
I’m anchored by too many doubts, fears, expectations.
The past is a chain holding me down.
The future is a vision not yet clear.
There is only today.
Today I will soar!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oscar Sunday

"Embrace Simplicity"

Today is the day when much of the country (and the world) turn their gaze to Hollywood celebrities and the Oscars given out at the annual Academy Awards.  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 of the heap,” they are the people who have have “arrived” in life.

Many social commentators have suggested that many “ordinary” people closely follow the lives of celebrities in order to live vicariously through them. My guess is that, although it may go unsaid, many people who will viewing today’s Academy Awards show may be thinking, “My own everyday life doesn’t really amount to much but at least I can imagine being important by watching all these famous people.”

Interestingly enough, in my experience I have learned that all the outward glitz and glamor associated with “big time” stars 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” stars.  

The thing I learned from all this is that almost 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 and painstaking, every day all those so-called “famous” celebrities often worked many hours doing sometimes extremely tedious tasks just like everyone else.

I honestly believe that 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 many people become “star struck" as they view all those well-known celebrities arriving on the "red carpet," I think about something the monk and author, Thomas Merton, once wrote in his journal during the last years of his life:

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

This points me to another spiritual lesson to be learned on this “Oscar Sunday.” Many people live their lives as if they are actors on a stage, hoping or pretending to be someone they are not, constantly competing for the honors, awards and recognition that life may have to offer, always seeking the applause of the crowds. This is a sure path to suffering and 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 of others and to realize that none of us is ever on the center stage in life. We are all extraordinary people because we are all ordinary people.  When we realize this, we are on a path of wisdom.

On this day when many people suffer from “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

Friday, February 24, 2017

Learning How to Unlearn

"Abundant Emptiness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

About four years ago, my wife and I moved out to the desert region of Southern California and the other day, a long-time friend asked how we were settling into our “desert life?”  He especially wanted to know what we have learned over these past four years? His question really struck me because, living out here I have discovered that a desert is a bad place to learn anything.

I am reminded of something priest and author, Anthony DeMello, once said about the spiritual life:

Where spirituality is concerned,
learning is all about unlearning -
unlearning almost everything you’ve ever been taught.
It’s all about unlearning and listening.

In these later years of my life. I have begun the process of learning how to unlearn on my road to wisdom, and life in an empty wilderness has helped me to do this.

I remember something priest and author, Richard Rohr, once said when he talked about the two halves of life. The first half is characterized by building and acquiring, it’s a time for learning, a time to build a career, raise a family, go to school and acquire knowledge. The second half of life is a time for letting go of it all, a time for unlearning what you know, listening to the revelations of every present moment with an uncluttered mind and open heart. I am definitely in my second half of life.

When I think of the path of my spiritual journey, I realize that my younger years were devoted to acquiring my beliefs, weaving together a neatly constructed belief system and then spending lots of time reading books and studying theology, gathering evidence to confirm what I had come to believe.   My ideas and beliefs about God, about the church, about myself and others gave me a sense of security, stability and control, but as I grew older I realized that this wasn’t enough and I now feel called to “go deeper,” and in order to “go deeper” on a spiritual path I have to learn how to “let go," I must learn how to unlearn.

Unlearning is not the same as doubting what you believe or denying what you have learned. Unlearning involves emptying your mind and letting go of the safe secure ideas you have been taught. Unlearning involves listening and making yourself available so that something new can happen in your life.

Many ancient mystics and teachers have wisely said: anything you think you know about God is not God.  Indeed, in a very real sense “God” is unable to be "acquired," unable to be captured by language or ideas. “God” is a transcendent presence unable to be fathomed or explained by propositions in a belief system.  When it comes to “God” we must all learn how to unlearn.

I have found the wilderness where we now live to be a supreme icon for this phase of my spiritual journey in my second half of life – the desert is wild and uncluttered, open and empty, an ideal place to learn how to unlearn.

When I walk out into the deep wilderness, the utter silence and the lack of any familiar landscape, the endless terrain with no clear paths to follow leaves me somewhat frightened, disoriented and out of control. I become fearful because I’m not exactly sure where I am or where I am going; but if I am able to calm my fears and instead of running away, surrender to the silence and the emptiness,  I always experience something greater than myself - isn’t this exactly what a spiritual journey is all about? 

The desert is a deeply spiritual place where you can “unlearn” a lot,  but you don't have to live in a desert to learn how to unlearn. 

Anthony DeMello also offers this wisdom:

On a spiritual path it’s not that we fear the unknown.
You cannot fear something that you do not know,
nobody is afraid of the unknown.
What you really fear is the loss of the known.