Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Pondering the Past

I’ve never climbed the Himalayas.  I’ve only ever hiked the foothills of the Alps a bit the summer I was 19.  But the metaphor of “climbing” Mount Everest has been with me a long time and several times, while pushing through to a very arduous task, I’ve described myself as “climbing” in the thin air of the Himalayas.

By the time I began to learn psychotherapy I had already developed some sense of how to manage relationships and what human development, in the sense of spiritual development, was.  I can’t say “what it was all about” but I can say I had some experience of it and I’d read a great deal, across boundaries of different religious traditions.  I viewed “therapy” as like the guru-disciple relationship.  And I saw it as an expansive journey, a journey into the unknown.  Two souls seeking.  One with some experience of such journeys, of its perils and its joys, but not trying to influence, so much as to encourage and to be a catalyst for the inner life of someone whose inner life had gotten stuck.  The other, the person stuck, trying to trust when perhaps trust itself might have been broken or betrayed, whether trust in oneself or trust in reaching out to a hand feared judgmental.

I had earlier been fortunate to spend nearly 8 years teaching young children - not far from a Benedictine Monastery (Mount Savior) which had a small bookstore/gift shop.  A small contemplative community, supporting itself as a dairy farm, raising corn and cows, making hay and praying seven times a day.  They had, before my time, held a conference for various important spiritual leaders of different traditions (I’m sorry I missed the proceedings and the spiritual guides present).  But there remained a vestige of that spiritual expanse in the books, carefully curated, in the bookstore.  I took full advantage of that!  
I read.  I meditated.  I pondered.  In my spare time.  While teaching, trying to reach certain children, trying educational experiments - to see what worked what didn’t.  While raising a young son, baking bread, making granola, growing sprouts and chopping vegetables for stir-fry dinners.  While my husband was attending graduate school.  While teaching myself to play the recorder.  Two actually, one a soprano, one alto, I think.  And classical guitar.  It had a beautiful sound.  It was better at “sounding” than I was at playing.  But the discipline!  And the joy of hearing it - resonating so beautifully.

Work paid the bills.  I thought a lot about education.  Child development.  I’d earlier read Piaget extensively.  And so I thought about how my students “thought” - trying to place myself in their position, understand where they were coming from.  How to help them move from their “thought places” to the places the curriculum expected.  Also, how to help them learn to learn, to get them to think, to ponder.  As I was doing.

During that time I think I discovered two things, which gave me a basis for learning psychotherapy.  One was that to help a child learn, you needed to connect with that child.  If the children felt respected and connected, you could reach them, you could help them learn.  And for me that learning included social skills and how to think through right and wrong, not just the curriculum I was expected to teach.  The second thing was that various religious traditions had developed ways to assist people in learning something deeper, something hard to put into words - that enabled people to question where they were at and to let go of rigid ways of thinking.  In order to find the courage to take some sort of “leap” into the unknown, using methods and guides developed over centuries and centuries.

I’m no expert on any of this.  Though I’ve traversed paths.  And climbed in the “thin air” of some of it.  I’ve ascended mountains.  And descended them.  Metaphorically speaking.  It’s been exhilarating and frustrating and scary at times.   I’ve had some enlightening experiences, you could say.  But you’re never done!  And after a while you stop trying to arrive.  Because the journey becomes the destination becomes:  “Here” am I.  Or just:  So, “I am.” And maybe “nowhere, nobody.”  “Now.”  Here.

I can’t say that I’ve arrived.   Only that I’ve traveled.  I’ve pondered.  

“And that has made all the difference.”

Saturday, July 4, 2015

A Lifetime of Conversation

I've been tempted to write a blog about marriage.  First I wanted to call it "In Praise of Marriage. Period."  That was after the Supreme Court finally recognized that we all want love.  And commitment.  But now that thought has morphed into a little meditation - looking back on nearly 48 years of marriage.  And how much that matters.  In old age, especially, as I'm finding.

In order to look back on decades of marriage, you need to embark on one.  I once knew a woman who believed that marriage was an experiment, one she wanted to "see through to the end."  I've often described getting married as:  "Two people holding hands - and jumping off a cliff."  Maybe that makes sense by itself.  But I mean that you embark on the unknown.  You hold hands because you are doing this together.  You're not gonna let go.  And you don't know what you're in for.

In order to appreciate the joys of a lifetime conversation, with that one person, there's a lot of pain and suffering ahead:  You don't know at the time you decide to marry how many conversations will be painful ones.  Ones where you're trying to work out how to keep holding hands, what gets in the way of that, what really matters to glue those hands together, how to cope with what life throws at you or what mistakes you've made, singly or together.  And how to patch things up and find out what that means.

We've been talking a lot lately, at ages 70 and nearly 76, of how much we appreciate all the time we've had together.  How much we appreciate the time we have now.  How much we appreciate looking back at our common memories, our shared history, the people we've known, places we've seen, what we have accomplished, what we regret.  How much we enjoy talking about the world, politics, ideas, the beauty of nature, characters of people.  It seems like we have something rare and special ...  I'm sure that statement is like the "rare and special" feeling of falling in love:  It's not just us, of course, but we are aware of this as having meaning that is special for us.

I wonder if "conversation" isn't the essence of marriage.  A conversation that brings so many joys and even sorrows, fear and even anger.  But one that endures and grows richer because so complex.  And maybe that is what people do not understand when they fear that "marriage" will somehow be diluted or polluted if open to everyone.  Do they not understand or experience marriage as we do?

When I was in college, people later told me, they would despair of me going on dates, because I would return and assess the date based on whether or not "we had a good conversation."  When that, in fact, was my whole reason for going to college!  To have interesting conversations.  To read and think and talk about things.  To stretch yourself from inside and outside.  In conversation with other people.  I have no idea what other people were looking for in a date.  So maybe I'm off-base in what marriage really is.

But the joy of having someone to talk to!  Someone who, increasingly, knows you through and through.  Who forgives you and even laughs over your foibles.  Someone you can be with, without needing to say a word, but who is also there, no matter the hour, to discuss something that's on your mind or in your soul.  Someone your intellectual and experiential equal, who's coming from a different perspective but (mostly) shares your same values.

I think there's also another aspect in our growing appreciation of each other and our marriage of many years.  And that is the element of time.  The awareness that we do not have endless time ahead of us, as one used to feel.  The sense of a finiteness to our togetherness.   The preciousness of what we used to take for granted.  The time and each other and the conversation.  And the anticipatory sadness and grief of that conversation - one day - coming to an end.  And not being able to discuss the aftermath of that end.  With the one person, the only person, who would truly understand.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Was Jesus "secular"?

I feel compelled to ask questions.  I'm never satisfied with assertions - devoid of back-up. 

My latest question comes from the assertion that care and concern for homosexuals or the divorced or those who simply exercise their God-given right to free-will decision-making automatically deserve the epithet: giving-in to a secular agenda.  (See Cardinal Pell's quote in this article.)

So, what exactly does "secular" mean?  Did it have any meaning when Jesus was alive?  Was Jesus crucified because (maybe) he appeared to be too secular for the religious authorities?  Would he be "crucified" today by the trolls among us - the rich, the powerful, the keepers of authority? 

Who defines "secular" or its opposite?  And how many opposites might there be?  For example, a majority of Americans admits to a belief in God.  A majority admits, as well, to the practice or acknowledgement of some type of faith.  Yet, a majority of Americans is also now in favor of gay marriage, to such an extent that even the Supreme Court, packed (I assert) with Opus Dei adherents (impossible to be sure - as the Opus prefers the Opaque) ...  even the Supreme Court has not ruled against Gay Marriage!

So where does this leave us? 

Whose side was Jesus on?  Whose side was God on when we, creatures of human soil (or stardust?) were granted free will? 

I think of Moses, the story of the Burning Bush.  And the words uttered there:  I have heard my people's cry.

Friday, October 17, 2014


I often think about writing here...

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Threading the Moral Needle

Sometimes the news is simply more than one can bear.
Often it turns me to prayer.

What follows is a brief comment of mine in response to the widening and accelerating moral issue of our time.  Interestingly, the fault lines, at times, seem to transcend US political divides:  Libertarians and Tea Party folk are divided on the Right.  And God knows what divides us on the Left.  The latest characters in this Morality Play are:  Edward Snowden; John Kerry; and Daniel Ellsberg.  The setting of my comment, along with a link to it, is here, with due credit to the NYTimes for choosing it among their editorial picks:
This is the most interesting ethical dilemma of our lifetime. And it has been taken up by a young man with extraordinary courage, who to my mind (I'm getting very close to 70) has elucidated - correctly - the thorny issues involved in his decision and his actions.

To act ethically is not necessarily to act legally. This is very difficult for many to understand. Indeed, a state operates on the presumption that citizens will never question the law and simply obey it.

To question, to doubt, to act according to one's conscience, irregardless of the potential legal penalties, in the midst of competing moral claims, requires great forethought and enormous courage. Gandhi defied the laws of South Africa and India. Bonhoeffer plotted the overthrow of Hitler via a plot to bring about his death. Jesus was accused, in effect, of trying to overthrow Roman rule and an entire religion. Many saints have been accused of heresy, who later were hailed as mystics.

Edward Snowden stands within a proud tradition of individuals willing to sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of others. There is no higher calling. No greater risk. And we who sit here, typing comments comfortably at home or work, cannot pass judgment on someone willing to act according to his conscience - for such high ideals, ideals very similar (though you may disagree) to those which motivated the Declaration of Independence.

Like Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, Jesus and others, he has my highest admiration and respect.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Ship of fools: If oligarchs designed a ferry

Here's an analogy that came to me as I read both Krugman and Brooks on Piketty in today's New York Times:  If our current economy were a ferry or an ocean liner, what would it look like?

Above deck - lavish quarters for the very rich.  More and more decks - massive enough to accommodate assets comprising a greater and greater % of total weight - all above the water line.  Resulting in more weight atop and less below.

Middle class likely at water level - fearful of falling into the huddled masses in steerage.  Down where most of the cargo should be.  If sanity ruled.  Instead:
 Below deck ballast ever decreasing...
More and more cargo space siphoned away for decks above.
The ship of state becoming ONE very top-heavy vessel. 
Lifeboats? Well, the deserving rich would, of course, equip and own them. And the poor, the middle class? Let them build and store their own lifeboats.

Like the ferry that recently sank off South Korea, we're at such a tipping point.  Any storm or high waves, a sharp turn:   A capsize all but certain.

Certainly the rich would immediately take to their life boats. Maybe the middle class might somehow get above decks and be allowed into one or two.  (If any were still abreast the sinking ship.)

But the huddled masses, below decks?  Like below-deck victims trapped on the Korean ferry, they would likely drown before any made it to safety. And which of the wealthy, in any case, would allow them "room" in their rich-person's life boat?  Like the crew that left the ferry, they'd already be on their way.  But on their way to where?

For who would be left to actually rescue the rich?  Once they topple the ship?  All the servants going down with it?  (Their needs - and the need for them - long forgotten.)

This is what happened to many societies where the wealthy forgot:
We're all in this together.
Sanity alone should dictate the architecture of a seagoing vessel.  And a sea-going vessel is one of the best images I can think of for demonstrating how lop-sided is our economic structure.

Some cartoonist should do me the favor of putting my words into one picture.  Till then, we'll have to make do with this historical precedent:
Vasa was built top-heavy and had insufficient ballast. Despite an obvious lack of stability in port, she was allowed to set sail and foundered only a few minutes after she first encountered a wind stronger than a breeze.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Give Me your feet"

If there's one Gospel story that anyone can envision being part of, it's the Foot Washing scene from the thirteenth chapter of John.

Like so much else in John's Gospel, the foot-washing is an enigmatic story.  I've been pondering it for years. 

So let me set the scene.  The disciples are all gathered in an upper room.  Around the time of Passover - the saving event in the life of Israel - celebrated at a festive dinner with one's friends and relatives.

Now in three of the gospels, Jesus is recalled as initiating a sacred action during the meal, where he identifies himself with the sharing of bread and wine - a gift to be remembered and repeated for all time. 

But in John's Gospel, a different gift is offered.  As remembrance of divine action and presence.   

The Foot Washing.

As I said initially, anyone can imagine being part of it:

So here we are, having supper with a revered teacher.  Someone whose words and deeds set our hearts aflame (like the burning bush).  Someone who so completely identifies himself with Holy Mystery - that if we see him, he tells us, we also see his Father. 

And now our host at the banquet takes off his good clothes, wraps a towel around him (something only a slave or a servant would wear), fills a bowl with water, and slowly approaches each of us.  To wash our feet.

The command is implicit:  Remain seated.  Take off your shoes.  (We are suddenly on holy ground, before the Burning Bush.) 

"Give me your feet," the ritual asks of us.  Give me your vulnerability.  Entrust yourself completely to my care.   One cannot stand on one's feet and allow them to be washed - at the same time.  So we must give ourselves over.  One and all.  Even Judas.  And who among us can say we have never been a betrayer?  

"If you want to be part of the Mystery, you must permit this," Jesus tells Peter.  This complete reversal of societal expectations, of religious rituals.  To become as vulnerable as a child - being bathed, or fed, by its mother.  The center of divine attention.

But pride and self-sufficiency are hard to part with.  It was for Peter.  That, it seems to me, is what we are ultimately asked to give up.  And in so doing, to place ourselves in the hands of Ultimate Mystery. 

In the face of an unknown future, the mystery invites us to let go of our self-importance.  In blind trust, it would seem.  For a time of trial is upon us.  (And when in life is there never a trial upon us?)

I am reminded of words spoken by God to Joshua after the death of Moses.   In moment of great tension, suddenly left to lead a people (hard to govern) in a momentous task (to cross the Jordon - into an unknown future), Joshua is told not to fear.  To be strong and courageous, for "Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you...  As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you."  

In the Holy Ground of our lives, we are not alone.  One thing is asked of us, as of Joshua:  To remember the Teachings - the gift already given.  To meditate on them day and night.  (Which links up nicely with Psalm 1, a wisdom psalm - where the Just One - likened to a tree planted by streams of water- drinks with "delight ... the law of the Lord, / and on his law ... meditates day and night.")