Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A New Frontier

Yesterday (literally!) I thought I had nothing new to give you, but then I realized I did have something old to offer, the wisdom of the poet Kahlil Gibran. My mother loved reading his books in the sixties and I’ve been reading her copy of Mirrors of the Soul, translated with biographical notes by Joseph Sheban and published by the Philosophical Library of New York in 1965. It’s amazing to me how relevant it is today.

In seminary I had a friend from Lebanon who could not understand why Gibran was so popular in the United States. “There are better poets in Lebanon,” he said frankly. But reading this particular book explains it to me. He immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was a teenager, though he returned to Lebanon for his higher education. No doubt being “bicontinental” as well as located in New York City gave him the exposure needed in the publishing world.

This book begins with a quote of Gibran that speaks to our need to listen to our own hearts and the heart of the universe:

My soul is my counsel and has taught me to give ear to the voices which are created neither by tongues nor uttered by throats.

Before my soul became my counsel, I was dull, and weak of hearing, reflecting only upon the tumult and the cry. But, now, I can listen to silence with serenity and can hear in the silence the hymns of ages chanting exaltation to the sky and revealing the secrets of eternity.

How often we only attend to “the tumult and the cry” rather than “the hymns of [the] ages”!

Sheban contends that Gibran was “a rebel, but only against ceremonial practices,” while familiarizing himself with a wide range of spiritual teachers, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Confucian, non-religious philosophers, and more. In one of his stories in Arabic, “Kahlil the Heretic,” a novice urges his monastic community to go out and serve the people, saying,

“The hardships we shall encounter among the people shall be more sanctifying and more exalting than the ease and serenity we accept in this place. The sympathy that touches a neighbor’s heart is greater than virtue practiced unseen in this convent. A word of compassion for the weak, the criminal and the sinner is more magnificent than long, empty prayers droned in the temple.”

Of course, the novice in the story is driven from the monastery!

Another character from another story, “John the Madman,” prays, “Come again, O Jesus, to drive the vendors of thy faith from thy sacred temple.”

Finally, these excerpts from Kahlil Gibran’s essay entitled “The New Frontier” written a hundred years ago may have a familiar ring and relevant reverberations for our time:

Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert.

Are you a merchant utilizing the need of society for the necessities of life for monopoly and exorbitant profit? Or a sincere, hard-working and diligent person facilitating the exchange between the weaver and the farmer, charging a reasonable profit as a middleman between supply and demand? If you are the first, then you are a criminal whether you live in a palace or a prison. If you are the second, then you are a charitable person whether you are thanked or denounced by the people.

Are you a religious leader, weaving for your body a gown out of the ignorance of the people, fashioning a crown out of the simplicity of their hearts and pretending to hate the devil merely to live upon his income? Or are you a devout and a pious person who sees in the piety of the individual the foundation for a progressive nation, and who can see through a profound search in the depth of one’s own soul a ladder to the eternal soul that directs the world?

If you are the first, then you are a heretic, a disbeliever in God even if you fast at day and pray by night. If you are the second, then you are a violet in the garden of truth even though its fragrance is lost upon the nostrils of humanity or whether its aroma rises into that rare air where the fragrance of flowers is preserved. …

Are you a governor who denigrates himself before those who appoint him and denigrates those whom he is to govern, who never raises a hand unless it is to reach into pockets and who does not take a step unless it is for greed? Or are you the faithful servant who serves only the welfare of the people?

If you are the first, then, then you are as a tare in the threshing floor of the nation; and if the second, then you are a blessing upon its granaries.

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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Photo from California desert by Chris. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

A Wedding and a Funeral in Trump Territory

Wade dancing with the bride.

I call it “Trump territory” rather than “Trump country” because I doubt any state wants to be characterized by how it voted in the last presidential election. Nor do its citizens. And “territory” sounds less permanent than “country,” suggesting things may change. And I am writing this post not to diminish Trump voters in Indiana and Louisiana or even my own state of Georgia, but to recognize we may share more values than pundits might admit.

I am writing this because when Wade and I visited Indiana for his mom’s memorial in September and Louisiana for our friend’s wedding in October, both held in picturesque rural chapels, we seemed to find the same welcoming people we enjoy in our own neighborhood and our own spiritual community here in Atlanta.

Now, we weren’t talking politics in either venue, but how people respond to a married gay male couple could be considered a sort of litmus test of values. And we seemed warmly received in our grief in Indiana and our celebration in Louisiana. What that says to me is that death and marriage are universally held as profound and important enough to, as they say in theater, “suspend our disbelief” in one another’s voting records and ideologies and, as they say in the church, “bear one another’s burdens and share each other’s joys.”

In a May visit to family and friends in California, one of my hosts was one of “those” puzzling Obama-Trump voters, but we had enough to talk about without pushing one another’s buttons over politics. As many of us anticipate family gatherings over Thanksgiving and Christmas, it helps to consider what we share than how we differ. Fox News does not need to share a turkey with MSNBC. If ceasefires can sometimes work in the Middle East, then they might work—if briefly—at our dinner tables.

My reading for both trips to Trump territory was Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. As I read the section on the movement from hostility to hospitality, tears came to my eyes. I was about to offer my morning prayers, but I realized my tears were my prayers.

My tears came from my youthful ideals that seem so unrealistic in our present political divisiveness. My first sermon in my home Presbyterian church as a college student was entitled “Conflict and Unity within the Church.” That congregation was so divided politically that the liberals sat on the left side of the sanctuary and the conservatives on the right! My sermon declared that maybe the church could be one place political sides could come together and have meaningful conversation.

Someone in the church sent a copy of my sermon to a newspaper columnist who wrote about it, doubting the possibility of what he called “an umbrella church.”

Off I went to seminary and bumped into Henri Nouwen, whose spirituality course in which I enrolled my first semester became the book Reaching Out. He said and wrote, “If we expect any salvation, redemption, healing and new life, the first thing we need is an open receptive place where something can happen to us. … To convert hostility into hospitality requires the creation of the friendly empty space where we can reach out to our fellow human beings and invite them to a new relationship.” (p 54)

“An open receptive place” to me is the very definition of sanctuary.

Regular readers know what store I place on the history of how I came by a book. A Roman Catholic priest who has remained a lifelong friend gave me his copy of Reaching Out in the mid-70s. The copy I’ve currently been reading is the one I gave my mother, writing inside the cover, “To Mom, What Henri shared with me I now share with you—with much love, Chris.”

Because it speaks to our current divisiveness, I’ve decided to use Reaching Out as the text for “An Open Receptive Place,” a new course on Henri I’ve been invited to lead for Columbia Seminary’s spiritual formation program September 17-20, 2020.

Life can teach us that although the events of the day are out of our hands, they should never be out of our hearts, that instead of becoming bitter our lives can yield to the wisdom that only from the heart a creative response can come forth.

If any criticism can be made of the sixties, it is not that protest was meaningless but that it was not deep enough, in the sense that it was not rooted in the solitude of the heart. When only our minds and hands work together we quickly become dependent on the results of our actions and tend to give up when they do not materialize. In the solitude of the heart we can truly listen to the pains of the world because there we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. There we can see that what is most universal is most personal and that indeed nothing human is strange to us. … It would be paralyzing to proclaim that we, as individuals, are responsible for all human suffering, but it is a liberating message to say that we are called to respond to it. (p 40-41)

Henri then talks about compassion, quoting Thomas Merton alluding to the solitude of the desert of the first Christian contemplatives: “What is my new desert? The name of it is compassion. There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion. It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lily.” (Merton, The Sign of Jonas, p 323.)

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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Jesus Breathed on Them

Wildflowers along our morning walk.

Very early Sunday morning, I felt Wade’s breath on my bare shoulder. That simple touch begat my morning meditation. The sensation reminded me that he was there, but also, that I was there.

And I began to think of the Gospel of John’s version of Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit. “Peace be with you,” Jesus said, after appearing to his disciples despite their doors locked against the authorities, religious and political. After showing his wounds to make clear he was not a ghost, Jesus simply breathed on the disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” With this breath they (and we) are sent into the world.

Less dramatic and sparser sermonic fodder than the Acts’ story of Pentecost, but this is probably how most of us encounter the Holy Spirit, that Spirit of God embodied in Jesus and passed on to those who attempt to live God’s will for justice, mercy, and compassion. A breath that reminds us God is with us, even within us, and reassures us that we are here.

It’s the breath of creation and evolution, of meditation and inspiration, of sensuality and spirituality. In troubled and busy times, it’s the breath we catch to find peace.

John’s Gospel is thought to be the most mystical of the four in our Bible, but it is arguably also the most physical and sensual, after all, it begins with God’s Word becoming flesh. In it, Jesus is referred to as the bread from heaven, living water to quench all thirst, the vine that sustains us branches, the source of our second birth, a good shepherd who calls us by name. He elevates physical well-being above religious rules by healing on the sabbath, disassociates disability from sin in healing one born blind, and offers us abundant life. He appreciates familial intimacy with Martha and Mary and Lazarus, and is crushed by the latter’s death, prompting him to call him back to life. He cradles an especially beloved disciple at the last supper and washes his disciples’ feet, and appears first to a grief-stricken (lovesick?) Mary when resurrected.

That his breath outpours the Holy Spirit fits the sensuality of this Gospel and, of course, parallels the breath Yahweh breathed into the chest of the first human creature. Biblically, breath and spirit are used interchangeably, as the same word may be used for either.

All of this did not come in my Sunday morning meditation, of course, but something I did ponder is the role of Jesus in my life. I’ve been re-reading Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out about prayer and the spiritual life and noticed his reference to the ancient and traditional “Jesus prayer,” which he renders, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me,” leaving out the end, “a sinner.” I guess that’s how I came also to leave out that self-disparaging ending, because this particular book came from his notes for my first course with Henri at Yale Divinity School. I always associated the prayer with those in the Bible in need of healing who cry for mercy, a broader application of the principle.

In this way, I’ve been occasionally praying this prayer, in that, as I age, I am feeling more vulnerable, more fragile. And though it’s comforting to address it to Jesus, my theology prompts me more often to pray, “Lord God, have mercy on me.” During my morning meditation this past Sunday I concluded that it doesn’t really matter to whom I address the prayer, as Jesus best represents God to me and I doubt that neither really care!

As I enjoyed Wade’s breath on my shoulder, I thought how comforting to think of Jesus’ or God’s breath on me.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Einstein's "Holy Curiosity"

This 1947 photo by Philippe Halsman was a favorite of Einstein's.

An article in Sunday’s paper about the possible evolutionary advantages of curiosity introduced me to a “famed quote” from Albert Einstein that was nonetheless new to me. He told a college student “never lose a holy curiosity.”

Of course, my “holy curiosity” got the better of me and I clicked on the link to that quote and found an intriguing conversation Einstein had with an interviewer, William Miller of Life magazine, and his “nihilistic” college-age son about religious beliefs.

Granting that we are free to name any power we believe in “God,” Einstein explains, “I do not believe in the God of theology who rewards good and punishes evil. … The presence of a superior reasoning power…revealed in the incomprehensible universe forms my idea of God.”

“I cannot accept any concept of God based on the fear of life or the fear of death, or blind faith. I cannot prove to you that there is no personal God, but if I were to speak of him I would be a liar. … I am an honest man.”

“Certainly there are things worth believing. I believe in the brotherhood of man and the uniqueness of the individual. But if you ask me to prove what I believe, I can’t. You know them to be true but you could spend a whole lifetime without being able to prove them. The mind can proceed only so far upon what it knows and can prove. There comes a point where the mind takes a leap—call it intuition or what you will—and comes out upon a higher plane of knowledge, but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap.”

When asked if he believes in a soul, Einstein responds, “Yes, if by this you mean the living spirit that makes us long to do worthy things for humanity.”

He suggests to the student that he (and by inference, we) find something “to occupy your curiosity for a lifetime.”

“Then do not stop to think about the reasons for what you are doing, about why you are questioning. The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity. Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value. He is considered successful in our day who gets more out of life than he puts in. But a man of value will give more than he receives.”

As the interviewer and son are leaving, the son points to a tree “and asked whether one could truthfully say it was a tree.” “This could all be a dream,” Einstein replies. “You may not be seeing it all.”

“If I assume that I can see it, how do I know exactly that the tree exists and where it is?” the student asks.

“You have to assume something. Be glad that you have some little knowledge of something that you cannot penetrate. Don’t stop to marvel.”

Reading this exchange, I couldn’t help but think of my and your “little knowledge” of God and the spiritual life. Einstein’s counsel never to stop marveling rings in my ears and rings true in my heart.

“It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity. Try not to become a person of success but rather try to become a person of value. One is considered successful in our day who gets more out of life than one puts in. But a person of value will give more than he/she/they receives.”

Related post: What Is Truth?

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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.