Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Invitation to Equanimity

We are entering into the season of autumn, one of the quarterly challenges to our human desire to be in control. As much as we may favor one particular time of year, we cannot keep the seasons from changing. Whether we prefer the heat of summer, the crispness of autumn, the snow of winter, or the greening of spring, we have to wait for our favorite season to cycle around.

This summer I watched the documentary The Green Planet featuring David Attenborough. The series gave me a great appreciation for plants, which do not resist change but adapt to it in marvelous ways. Whether they encounter light, dark, moisture, drought, wind, or predators, they react to outside conditions and their own inner nature by sprouting, growing, reproducing, diminishing, and dying in due measure.

If we pay attention to the vegetation of the green planet that is our home, it will teach us equanimity and the ability to sit with what is. In quietness and contemplation, we come to learn that instead of trying to change what is, we can use our own inner resources to adapt to our conditions. That might mean adjusting our hours for sleep and work according to the seasons, as St. Benedict outlined in his Rule, or using our technological advances to work from home when snowstorms or pandemics hit.

Nature has the power to humble us. However, when we relinquish or desire for dominion over the natural world, it is freeing to realize that we can be partners with soil, water, plants, and animals to nurture life and affirm God’s proclamation about creation: It is good.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Delight and Sorrow

In reading about the lives of medieval female saints, it appears that a great many of them experienced dismal arranged marriages. The wealthy ones attempted to distract themselves with frivolous diversions of society life, but the emptiness of their lives changed only when they had an encounter with God and responded to the love they experienced by serving others.

This is the story of St. Catherine of Genoa, who served the sick at a local hospital, even during an outbreak of plague. As Robert Ellsberg notes in Give Us This Day, “As she grew in love, she grew in her capacity for happiness.” Catherine herself said, “In God is my being, my me, my strength, my beatitude, my good, and my delight.”

Along with the delight of love comes sorrow, as we acknowledge on the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows. Mary, the mother of Jesus, expressed delight in God’s goodness in her Magnificat prayer when she greeted her cousin Elizabeth. However, her deep love of her son led her to profound sorrow as she watched him suffer and die. And so it is for all of us.

As Kahlil Gibran observed, “The selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” Cynthia Bourgeault notes that sorrow “…at the same time call[s] forth some of the most exquisite dimensions of love ... qualities such as steadfastness, tenderness, commitment, forbearance, fidelity, and forgiveness.” Thus, as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don’t know what work they are accomplishing within you?”

Delight and sorrow are companions on our life journey. Despite the sorrow she experienced, Mary’s prophecy was fulfilled: all generations call her blessed. She teaches us that the sorrow that accompanies love will bear fruit because love always begets more love.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Love Languages

I recently learned about the concept of “Love Languages,” developed by pastor Gary Chapman 30 years ago. As noted in The New York Times, Chapman “…proposed that the ways people prefer to have love communicated to them fall into five categories, or ‘languages’: acts of service, words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts and physical touch.”

Understanding love languages can help Christians express God’s love more effectively. Different people may be more likely to see God’s love reflected in helpful acts, through words of encouragement, in companionship, through gift giving, or in hugs, for example.

Jesus, the supreme messenger of God’s love, was fluent in all the love languages. He constantly served others through his acts of healing; he affirmed those who were humble and generous; he spent a lot of time teaching the crowds and eating with his disciples; he gave food to the hungry; and he used physical touch in his healing (taking Jairus’ daughter by the hand and rubbing mud on the eyes of a blind man, for example).

We, too, can become fluent in the five love languages when we listen to others and observe their reactions when we offer service, verbal affirmation, companionship, gifts, and physical touch. It’s easy to tell when someone is delighted with a gift, touched by our assistance, brightened by our affirmation, appreciative of our companionship, or warmed by a hug. This is how we learn to speak this person’s preferred love language.

Jesus said that the greatest commandments are to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves. He didn’t offer many specifics about how to do this, however. Love languages give us a basic framework for how to most effectively extend God’s love to others. 

Friday, August 26, 2022

Finding God On the Wild Edges

We often talk about being centered in God. However, as Christine Valters Paintner notes, “The holy one is at the very center of all things, but also waiting for you on the wild edges.”

Many of us would probably say that our lives are devoid of wild edges. Yet if we consider the things we avoid in life, we will probably discover that wild edges are all around us. What would it feel like to volunteer at a homeless shelter, a prison, or a nursing home and converse with some of the residents there? Is God waiting for us in those places? Might God be lurking in the art supplies that sit in our closet or in the piano that is gathering dust in the corner? Is God waiting to be noticed in a person you need to be reconciled with?

Being centered is terrific, but when we stay forever in that safe, comfortable place, we are excluding a world of possibilities of encounter with God. I once heard someone say “One of my favorite places to be is in suspense!” When we remember that God is present not just at the center of all things but everywhere, we can live in a state of delightful suspense about where our next encounter with God will take place … and if the Spirit has anything to say about the matter, that encounter is likely to occur on the wild edges of our lives.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Skinny Definitions of God

I recently began the Souljourners spiritual direction training program at Sophia Center, and during our residency week in July, instructor Lucy Abbott Tucker spoke about the need to avoid “skinny definitions” of God.

A “skinny” definition of God is one that places limits on the way God acts, thinks, and loves. We are envisioning a skinny God when we believe God won’t forgive us or others for something we have done, when we assume that God prefers Christians to Muslims, Jews, or Hindus, or when we believe God listens to only certain types of prayers.

According to the prophet Isaiah, God rejects our skinny definitions: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9). Paul echoes this wisdom in his letter to the Romans, “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Rom 11:34).

When we recognize that God is not skinny but boundless, we give up trying to predict what God thinks or wants and accept that God is mysterious. Giving up our skinny definitions of God is satisfying because it means we are no longer placing limitations on our relationship with God. Now we have the pleasure of being surprised by God, and we transition from thinking about God to actually encountering God.

Humans love trying to figure out mysteries, but God is beyond our comprehension. The best we can do is set aside our efforts to define and understand and instead be open to God who is with us in a myriad of surprising ways.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

A Living Prayer

Eunice Schriver, who was born into a family that included a president (John F. Kennedy) and two senators (Robert and Edward Kennedy), made her mark on the world not in the halls of power but in championing the value and dignity of the powerless. She did this by establishing the Special Olympics for persons with physical and mental disabilities.

In scripture, we often hear that God lifts up the lowly, rescues the weak and afflicted, and treats all people with compassion. Eunice partnered with God in this work, which led her family to say after her death that she was “a living prayer, a living advocate, a living center of power.”

St. Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, says that we should “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). Perhaps the way to do this is to become “a living prayer” — that is, seeking to share in God’s life of love and compassion. We are each called to implement God’s vision in different ways, according to our gifts and passions and often prompted by people we encounter in life, as Eunice was influenced by her sister, Rosemary, who had mental disabilities.

We have many examples of how to be a living prayer — Jesus, the saints, and the innumerable people among us who shine with the determination to live fully and bring joy and justice to the world. Whether the prayer we embody consists of consistent acts of kindness and welcome or the establishment of a worldwide justice movement, let us live in such a way that people will say of us after we die, “She/He was a living prayer.”

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Live Gently

Jewish theologian and peace activist Abraham Joshua Heschel, who lived to be 65, said, “When I was young I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.” Heschel had good reason to admire kind people, as two colleagues helped him escape from Poland six weeks before the country was invaded by Germany. Heschel’s mother and three of his sisters were killed by the Nazis. In his later years, inspired by the teachings of the Hebrew prophets, Heschel worked for African Americans' civil rights and spoke out against the Vietnam War.

Mattie Stepanek

Heschel would have found a kindred spirit in Mattie Stepanek, who was born 18 years after Heschel died. Stepanek did not have the luxury of gaining wisdom that comes with age, as he died of a rare form of muscular dystrophy when he was age 14. In his short lifetime, Stepanek too was a peace activist; he called everyone to be “a peace seeker, a peace maker, a peace bringer.” He also was a proponent of kindness, saying, “Think gently, speak gently, live gently.”

In a polarized world, living gently is a gift to ourselves and to others. When we think and speak gently, we are able to avoid the shame of treating others unkindly and contributing to a culture of violence through our speech and actions. Living gently helps us foster an attitude of reverence toward all of God’s creation that generates healing and peace.

We can reinforce our intention to live gently with a simple blessing ritual. After dipping a finger in water, hold it to your forehead and say, “May I think gently.” Touch your lips and say, “May I speak gently.” Touch the area over your heart and say, “May I live gently.” When performed regularly, this brief ritual can help us integrate our desire to be a person of peace by checking us when unkind thoughts, words, or impulses arise in us.

We do not know how long we will have to be bringers of peace in our world. Mattie Stepanek showed us that even in a brief span of years, our efforts to live gently can bear fruit and echo long after we die and enter more fully into the peace of our loving God.