Friday, February 16, 2018

Angels and Demons

"Sunshine and Shadows"
- in the deep wilderness -

Over the past few nights I have been roused out of a sound sleep by the sound of a pack of wild coyotes howling in the wilderness near where we live. When we first moved out here, the eerie sound of wild beats howling under a midnight moon in the desert made me very nervous and uncomfortable;  however, over the past few years I have learned to take a few breaths, calm down and “make peace” with the sound of those wild animals.  In fact, I have come to realize that the night creatures are part of what make this desert such an intriguing place to live.

If the wilderness was only populated by hummingbirds and butterflies fluttering about in the bright morning sun, the desert would be a “nice” place to live but not a deeply spiritual place. Instead, out here in the wilderness the sun shines brightly but coyotes also howl in the middle of the night, snakes slither under rocks and in the brush and bats fly in the midnight sky.

Just as shadows and shade provide depth and contrast to a painting, the nighttime shadows and sounds of the wild beasts offer depth and contrast to life in the wilderness, that’s why this place is so mystical and so deeply spiritual.  

On the Christian calendar, the season of Lent now begins with the story of Jesus in the wilderness.  According to the gospels, before starting his public ministry, Jesus went out into the Judean desert (an area that looks very much like the desert where we live here in Southern California). He spent 40 days and 40 nights alone in the wilderness searching to be enlightened about his identity, seeking the meaning of his life and the direction of his mission.

As he discerned his deeper truth out in the desert, Jesus not only listened for the voice of “God” but he also paid attention to what the shadows and the demons were saying to him. The Gospel of Mark wonderfully describes “Jesus in the wilderness” in one pithy, profound and extremely iconic sentence:

The spirit pushed Jesus out into the wilderness, where for forty days
he lived with the wild beasts and the angels attended him.

As I see it, this is indeed a wonderfully emblematic description of the very essence of what a spiritual journey is always all about. The path to deeper truth and greater wisdom always engages our brighter angels and also our darker demons. The spiritual journey is not so much a victory march as it is a beautiful struggle

People may imagine that the journey to enlightenment involves a rejection of the shadowy and darker aspects of our life, I don’t agree. The journey to greater truth and deeper wisdom always involves embracing the shadows of our human condition.  Priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way:

To be fully human is to live by sunlight and moonlight,
with anxiety and delight,
admitting limits and transcending them,
falling down and rising up.
To want life with only half these things is to want only half a life,
shutting the other half away
where it will not interfere with one’s bight fantasies
of the way things ought to be

 Richard Rohr, offer some similar wisdom about the journey to enlightenment:

I suppose there is no more counterintuitive idea than that of
using and integrating what we fear, avoid, deny and deem unworthy
as necessary to our growth and maturity in the spiritual life.

Somehow we believe that religious people or people on any sort of spiritual path aren’t supposed to be haunted by the demons of our human condition.  Spiritual people aren’t supposed to have doubts, fears, anxieties, lust or addictions, they aren’t supposed to be prone to laziness or cheating. Spiritual people are supposed to always walk in the light and avoid the darkness - I don’t believe this is true. 

We all have our demons that howl in the night; and so, rather than pretending these demons don’t exist or continually trying to fight them and kill them off, we need to live with the wild beasts who abide in the wilderness with us along with our better angels. Without giving in to their allure, we even need to listen to what the demons may actually be teaching us about our lives.

When we embrace our doubts we can explore deeper truth. The times when we are injured or do damage to another can be opportunities that push us into places of forgiveness and mercy in life. Even our lusts, anger, addiction and anxiety can make us vulnerable enough to break away from the grip of our isolated ego and reach out to others for healing, wisdom, counsel and guidance.

It’s now morning here we we live and the bright sun has come up over the eastern mountains, hummingbirds are fluttering about and an early spring breeze is gently blowing through the palm trees. For me, this whole experience is so much more beautiful because last night wild beasts howled under a midnight moon.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday Valentines

"Blossoms in the Wilderness" 
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Today is “Ash Wednesday” on the Christian calendar and it is also Valentine’s Day, which presents a bit of a dilemma for some people. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season, a lean and stark time for making self sacrifices, a time to “repent” from sin;” whereas Valentines Day is a lush time for romantic dinners and sending flowers or candy to the love of one’s life.  Many people may have a hard time reconciling these two observances that are seemingly very different; but as I see it, the observance of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day is almost perfectly complementary.

Growing up, I was taught that a “sin” was “an offense against God.” In order to repent from sin, you must tell “God” you were sorry for hurting “him” so that he might love you more, or more importantly, punish you less.

This view of God as the big bully in the sky who needs to be appeased whenever he gets hurt seems quite childish and even silly to many non-religious people nowadays - it also sounds pretty ludicrous to me. I personally don’t think that “repentance”  has anything to do with making “an unhappy God” happy again. In essence, “sin” is the rupturing of any relationship and we repent from sin whenever we repair or maintain relationships.

Priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor defines everyone and everything as a “luminous web of relationship.”  I find this image to be very helpful. We “are” a relationship!  Everything and everyone that exists “is” a cosmic, dynamically interconnected relationship, all bound together by the radiant, diving energy we call “God.”

Indeed, whenever we rupture a relationship, when we feed our self-centered egos, when we do damage to one another or when we when we destroy our relationship with the world of nature,  we commit a “sin,”  and in this sense a “sin” is indeed an “offense against God.”  We turn away from sin (repent from sin) by healing broken relationships and nurturing “love” in our lives.

On Valentines Day, “love” is often depicted as a warm and tender romantic feeling that two people have for one another; but genuine love always goes far deeper than nice feelings. In fact, in some sense love isn’t a feeling at all. In his classic book, The Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck offers this wisdom:

Love is not a feeling,
genuine love is a courageous activity
by which we extend ourselves for the nurture and welfare of another.
Real love often occurs in a context in which the feeling of love is lacking.
When we act lovingly, despite the fact that we don’t feel loving,
we are really loving.

On “Ash Wednesday” we turn away from sin by reconciling and healing broken relationships, we repent from “sin” by shattering the isolation of our bloated egos and extending our lives for the nurture and welfare of other people. We repent from sin by recognizing our intimate relationship with the world of nature. Today might be a good day for giving our our hearts and sending our valentines to those for whom we feel love and to those who we don’t even like. Valentine’s Day is a great day for all of us to “turn away from sin.”

It seems to me that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday are wonderfully complementary. I wish they would always be celebrated on the same day.

Saturday, February 10, 2018


"Every Common Bush Alive with God"
- along a wilderness trail -

On this weekend before the season of Lent begins, many Christian churches will tell the well-known story of the “Transfiguration.” According to this narrative, before going to Jerusalem to face his ultimate betrayal and death on a cross, Jesus takes some of his disciples up to a high mountain peak where they see him “glowing” with the brilliant light of divine energy.

Nowadays non-believers scoff at the story as being little more than a magical fairy tale told to children; and, even for believers, if you take the story too literally it’s kind of hard to believe it actually happened - after all none of us has ever seen someone glow. Or have we?

In some sense everyone has a “spark of God” aglow in them and everything that "is" radiates a divine energy but most of the time we don’t recognize it – our hearts are too hard, our minds to clouded and distracted.  In a very real sense, the story of the Transfiguration is also a story about those disciples who accompanied Jesus up the mountain who woke up from their spiritual sleep and became alert and awake enough to see the light of “God” shining in the face of Jesus. The story of the Transfiguration invites any one of us an any type of spiritual path to wake up to the the radiant energy of “God” glowing everywhere in our midst.

Most every day I find myself hiking out into the wilderness area around our house. On my walk yesterday I was struck with the awareness that the dry, desert soil and the rock-covered mountains had almost overnight burst into a bright array of excruciatingly beautiful spring wildflowers, bright yellow blossoms on the desert trees and bushes, exotic flowers pushing their way through the tough skin of thorny cacti. All throughout the winter months I walked along those trails and everything appeared to be so dead and so dry but everything was actually very much alive – I just failed to see it.

This springtime (and in this upcoming Lenten season) I am reminded that the radiant energy of “God” glows beneath the surface of everyone and everything, all the time. So this is a season for spiritually waking up to it all.

The whole experience reminded me of a verse of one of my very favorite poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush alive with God
But only he who sees takes off his shoes
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries

As I see it, all of us are always walking along life-paths that are vibrantly "alive with God.” At work, at school, in the supermarket, in our kitchen cooking dinner, sitting in the local Starbucks, walking on on a city street, on a trail in a desert wilderness on a glorious spring day -  every place we ever stand is “a Transfiguration” mountaintop where the glory/energy of “God” is always radiantly glowing if we are willing to pay attention. I also wonder if some people are unaware that every place we stand is a holy place glowing with divinity because we only expect a church, a temple of a mosque to be sacred ground.

I am reminded of one of my favorite pieces of wisdom I once came across in one of my Buddhist magazines:

Whatever we are looking for is already right here,
the problem is that we are usually elsewhere.
When we pay attention to our everyday life
we always discover something truly wonderful.

For me, this story of the Transfiguration is told each year as the season of Lent begins as a reminder to exercise the muscles of my spiritual awareness and look for “God” aglow in every step I take. During the upcoming Lenten season I want to more intentionally “take off my shoes” wherever I may go because I am always standing on Holy Ground.