Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Not Much Going On

"New Life"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

A few days ago I heard two friends greet one another at the gym. One person said “Hey, what’s up?” The response: “Not much.” I paid such close attention to this rather ritualistic exchange (the way many people greet one another nowadays) because it strikes me that this simple little phrase carries an awful lot of baggage with it. People begin a conversation with one another by declaring that “not much is going on" in their lives, nothing to report, just the same old (rather boring) routine of everyday living.  

Most of us get up in the morning and do what we usually do every day, we go to work or school, or sit at a computer, cook a meal, take care of the kids, maybe go the gym - nothing special about any of it.  It’s very easy to get “stuck in the rut” of the daily routine and so we eagerly anticipate the next big holiday, a weekend trip or a planned vacation - anything to give us a break from a life of “not much” going on

It seems to me that we will see what we “expect” to see in life. If we anticipate that “not much” is going on in the daily routine of our ordinary living, then probably “not much” will be going on.  If we look at the world with tired eyes we will see a tired world and if our mind is always thinking about the past or anticipating a “better” future, we will inevitably miss what is actually going on in the moment.

Buddhist teacher, Susan Murphy, offers this observation about living every day:

Don’t miss anything.
Everything counts.
 Everyone counts.
Find out what it all means and do what it wants of you

Personally, I find great wisdom in this one little phrase. As I see it, this advice is a good antidote for any of us who may have slipped into the coma of a “stuck in the rut” mentality. I have discovered that when we are really able to embrace life as it comes to us in all its many varied forms, we often find a joy and purpose we never might have imagined.

The fact is that there is no such thing as a “not much” world. Our everyday life can be filled with “much” if we actually believe that everything and everyone counts in every single moment of every single day and then keep our eyes open to “find out what it all means so that we can do what it wants of us.”

I am reminded of one of my favorite Zen stories about a master who would assemble his students every morning in order to encourage, inspire and motivate them before they began the activities of the day. One might expect that the master would give a little “pep talk” urging his novice students to use the day in pursuit of great spiritual heights; instead he began every day by offering his charges this rather simple piece of advice:

Today work at being ordinary
Now, go put on your robes, eat your food and pass the time.

I like the story so much because it teaches me that when I fully embrace my ordinary life as it comes to me I will always find a very extraordinary world.  I find spiritual depth by standing on the surface of my daily routine, paying attention to everything that happens. 

“Hey what’s up?”

Everything, absolutely everything, because everyone counts and everything counts.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Every Common Bush Alive with God

"A Holy Mountain"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday morning my wife and I were walking along one of the desert trails outside our home. It’s a trail that is very familiar to us, we walk it almost every day; but yesterday something happened that turned the ordinary and familiar into a very extraordinary and awe-filled moment.

Seemingly overnight, the rocky, dry, desert mountains had 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. It was such a holy moment, such a “thin space” as we stood there gazing in awe at all that wonderful life-energy rising up out of dry desert sand in the middle of the wilderness.

The whole experience reminded me of a verse from 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

Of course if you think of “God” as a separate, heavenly “superman” out there and up there, apart from everything and everyone down here, then it will be quite difficult to encounter Holy Presence in a flowering bush or a blossoming tree, in a gentle breeze, a soaring bird, a lover or a friend. But if “God” is that abiding life-force, the energy of Love pulsating in and through everything and everyone, then “God” can indeed be encountered in the most ordinary moments of everyday life – in every common bush.

As we walked along that trail yesterday we basked in the beauty of abundant life springing up out of that rocky, barren, desert mountain and it suddenly became quite clear to me that we were standing on holy ground.  The ground on which we stood was as holy as any church or cathedral or temple I have ever been in. It almost seemed sacrilegious to be standing there in an old pair of sneakers and I wondered if maybe I should take off my shoes out of respect for that sacred place that was so alive with “God.”

I am reminded of something Wendell Barry once said:

There are no unsacred places;
only sacred places
And desecrated places.

As I see it, all of us are always walking on “holy ground.” At work, at school, in the supermarket, in the coffee shop, on city streets, on a trail in a desert wilderness on a glorious spring day -  every place we ever stand is “holy ground” but most of the time we are simply unaware of it because our minds are too preoccupied with our thoughts about the past or plans for the future.  Or perhaps we are unaware of the “holy ground” on which we stand because we only expect a church, a temple of a mosque to be a sacred space and so instead of taking off our shoes we just “sit around and pluck blackberries.”

Poet and author, Chris Wiman, once observed this about the spiritual journey: 

What I crave is
Mystery that utterly obliterates reality by utterly inhabiting it,
some ultimate insight that is still sight.

What a perfectly wonderful way to describe the desert in springtime – it is a place in which the “Great Mystery” we call “God” utterly obliterates reality by utterly inhabiting it.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Celebrating a Celtic Spirituality


Today is Saint Patrick’s Day and while there will be plenty of parties, green beer and shamrocks to mark the occasion, there is actually a pretty deep spiritual tradition associated with this day.

Most people think Saint Patrick was the bishop who first brought Christianity to Ireland but that’s not exactly true. Back in the 5th century, the Pope sent Patrick and a group of missionary monks into Ireland to “convert” the pagan Celts.  However, these missionaries very quickly discovered that the Celts they were supposed to convert were already a very spiritual people. Generations before the Christian missionaries arrived in Ireland, the ancient peoples of that land had been strongly influenced by the spirituality of the pagan Druids. The Druid priests had a profound sense of a holy presence intimately abiding in a world of nature. Although they had never heard the Christian Gospel, those ancient Celts believed that a transcendent power flowed in and through all things and all people, binding and weaving everything and everyone together.

So instead of “converting” the already spiritual Celts, Patrick and his missionaries entered into a dialogue with them. The missionaries and the native Irish people shared their stories and their faith with one another, and from that dialogue a new form of Christianity emerged- a Celtic Christianity, a "Celtic Spirituality."

In this newly emergent Celtic Spirituality, rather than thinking about “God” as a distant, heavenly being, “God” was viewed more like an ocean in whom we all live and move and have our being.  “God” is always intimately present even if we aren’t always aware of this presence.

The early Celtic Christians prayed in a manner that extended far beyond the walls of a church. They would pray in every moment of routine life. They prayed while washing pots, cleaning floors, while planting crops and tending sheep. They prayed this way because there was no place that “God” was not present. 

The contemporary Irish poet, John O’Donohue, beautifully expresses the basic essence of a Celtic Spirituality:

Sometimes the urgency of our hunger blinds us to the fact that
we are already at the feast.
We are always home, never exiled.
Although our minds constantly insist on seeing walls of separation,
In reality most of the walls are mere veils.
In every moment, everywhere,
We are not even inches away from the divine presence.

They say that on Saint Patrick’s Day everyone is Irish. I wonder if this might be a good day for any one of us, regardless of the path we are on, to celebrate a Celtic Spirituality.  Instead of just wearing green today, maybe we might all honor the day by recognizing how intimately interconnected we all are and to remember that we are always and everywhere not even inches away from divine presence.

I am reminded of a Celtic Blessing that has its origins in the pagan Druid tradition of ancient Ireland. It seems like an appropriate blessing for us all this day:

Deep peace of the Running Wave to you.
Deep peace of the Flowing Air to you.
Deep peace of the Quiet Earth to you.
Deep peace of the Shining Stars to you.
Deep Peace!