Tuesday, April 30, 2013

No One Outside the Gate

the entrance gate to my desert retreat house

The little bell at my entranceway rang out yesterday morning announcing the arrival of a repairman who had come to "tune up"my old grandfather clock. As I opened the gate to let him in, I remembered a phrase that I have often seen posted over the entranceways of many Benedictine monasteries I have visited in my life: "Receive All as Christ."

Most people think that monks cut themselves off from the outside world and so, at first blush,  it may seem odd that a monastic community would be so welcoming and hospitable to "outsiders." But the fact is that, "hospitality" is a foundational principle of monastic life. Every single person who rings the bell at the gate, regardless of who they are,  is to be received as if he or she is Christ - generously welcomed with open arms and treated with profound respect.

I'm actually not surprised at the monastic practice of hospitality. After all, monks devote their entire lives to be faithful followers of Jesus and to live according to Christ's example. 

When I look at the life and teachings of Jesus, I find someone who is an "icon" of hospitality.  By that, I don't mean that Jesus threw great parties or set a nice table. Jesus is an "icon"of hospitality because of his  "lifestyle."  He welcomed any who came to the entrance of his life with open arms and treated them with profound respect - no one was ever left standing outside the gate. 

He kissed the leper, touched the untouchable, ate with sinners, exalted the faith of pagans and Samaritans, and he even entered the house of an enemy Roman centurion in order to heal his dying servant, everyone always welcome to the table of his life.

I guess that's why I am always so appalled when I see "others" pushed aside and shunned in the name of Christ. I have seen example after example in which "Christians" have enforced a doctrine of exclusion rather than practiced a lifestyle of hospitality.

Over my lifetime I have seen far too many Christians keep "others" outside the gate because they were too "different"--from a foreign country or practice the wrong kind of religion. They didn't speak English well enough,  or were the wrong color, or the wrong gender, or they embraced an unacceptable sexual orientation. 

 Far too many times I have heard churches pronounce the words, "You don't belong. " It's a phrase unworthy of any church -  a phrase that has no place on the lips of any Christian.

Today I open my arms and embrace any who ring the bell at the entranceway of my life - no one standing outside the gate.


Monday, April 29, 2013

Ordinary Time

The Rays of the Morning Sun Reflected on the Western Mountains
-The Beginning of Another Ordinary Day-


Lots of people really don't like Mondays. They find a certain drudgery inherent in the beginning of a new work week. I knew someone who used to tell me that if he could "get through" Monday, he could  probably endure the rest of the week.

As I was eating breakfast today, looking out at the rays of the sun on the mountains outside the front of my retreat house, I thought about this ordinary, everyday Monday,  and I reflected on an NPR radio program I heard yesterday. 

Krista Tippett has a weekly broadcast titled, "On Being," (by the way you can download the podcast-well worth it). Yesterday Krista interviewed a wonderful poet named Marie Howe who talked about the "sacredness of ordinary time." 

As a poet, Ms. Howe related how she tries to capture the power and depth inherent in "ordinary"moments in time. She went on to say, however,  that you can't find the sacred in the ordinary unless you allow yourself to live in the present and be aware of the moment.

Ms. Howe spoke about a writing class she teaches in which she asks her students to write a few sentences about what they had "observed" that morning before coming to class. Many students find that they are unable to so. 

She went on to say that her students (like most people) find it  painful to write about their observations because most of them haven't observed anything. They were on their cell phones, texting, driving, preparing for class, thinking about what they were going to do for lunch.  Very few were actually  aware of the present moment,  and therefore were unable to share their observations even in a sentence or two.

Professor Howe said that, every once in a while a student will "get it"and the simple observations of the moment suddenly turn into poetry.  She recounted one sentence written by a girl in her class,  "This morning I listened to the crunch of an apple I was slicing,  and saw the gleaming of the knife."  

When we are able to be truly present to life as it comes to us, we can all find that the "ordinary" is always "sacred."

During the program, a saying of the the famous Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh was quoted, "When you are washing the dishes, imagine you are cleaning the baby Jesus or the Baby Buddha." 

Yes, it is an ordinary Monday - another opportunity to enter into sacred time and sacred space. 

Today I will listen for the crunch of the apple and observe the gleaming of the knife.  Today I will wash the dishes and hold the baby Jesus and the baby Buddha in my hands. 



Sunday, April 28, 2013

Dry Places

a stunning yellow flower blooms on the cactus in the courtyard garden of the retreat house


Yesterday morning I walked into my courtyard garden and discovered that a beautiful yellow flower had sprung up from one of the cacti.

I find that flowers blooming from cacti are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The colors and shapes and even fragrances of cacti flowers are rich, bright and exotic.  I think maybe I am so amazed at these flowers because I just don't expect to see such delicate and elegant beauty springing out of bristly, thorny cacti planted in dry barren soil.

Once again I discover how much the desert has to teach me; and once again I realize why the desert is such a deeply spiritual place as my beautiful yellow cactus flower teaches me something about the "dry places" in our human condition. 

We all have dry places in life. Sometimes the dry places of life are more prevalent than others - sickness, a ruptured relationship, depression, addiction, financial difficulties, the loss of a loved one.

Often times people don't want to look at or think about their own dry places. We want to feel pleasure and the dry places in life are not all that comfortable. 

In my own life I know that, at times, I have hidden my own dry places from others. I have even hidden them from my self. And yet, as I look at the course of my life, I realize that sometimes the driest and least attractive parts of me have been the places where the greatest joy and beauty have flourished. 

My dry places have given me an opportunity to face and to name my own demons.  When I have recognized the dry places in life and, instead of hiding away,  have reached out to others for healing and forgiveness,  new life has always emerged and sprung forth from the bristly thorny skin of my ego.

One final reflection -  usually when people go through dry patches in life, God gets blamed.  When people suffer or are in pain, they think they have been abandoned by God or perhaps even punished for their bad deeds. I think the opposite is true.   I believe that God's beautiful reviving presence always abides just beneath the surface of the driest places in the human condition. 

A thick-skinned and not so pretty cactus is planted in the barren rocky desert ground. From it a beautiful yellow flower blooms. 

The desert is such a wonderful teacher.


Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Way

a pathway in the desert just outside my retreat house

Today I have been reflecting on how much my own Christian "faith" has changed since my childhood days. When I was a boy, I was taught (and I believed) that you had to worship Christ, go to church, and obey all the rules in order to go to heaven when you died. I also believed that, whenever you had a problem or needed a favor you would pray to Jesus to take care of it for you. 

I don't believe any of that any more,  and in fact, when I read the Christian Scriptures, I don't think Jesus ever taught any of that. Jesus never demanded to be worshipped in order to go to heaven, nor did he promise that he would take care of all our problems and needs in this life.

The first Christians were known as "People of the Way." They understood that Jesus came among us, to show us how to find peace and serenity in "this" life. He said very little about the life to come.  By his teaching and example Jesus taught that human beings can find a "way" through the wilderness of life by surrendering the desire to constantly feed one's own self-centered "ego" needs.  Jesus was an icon of compassion, welcoming, reconciliation, mercy, and  forgiveness. He taught that following this path in life would lead to genuine happiness. 

Those first Christians understood themselves as travelers on the path that Jesus had carved out for those who would follow his way. They understood Christianity to be a "lifestyle, " rather than an insurance policy for the future or a pill to take in times of need.

The teaching of the Buddha is remarkably similar to the teaching of Jesus.

Siddhartha Gautama eventually came to be known as "The Buddha," which means "the awakened one."  He taught that everyone is a Buddha (or at least has the potential to be one).  He taught his disciples how they could all become Buddhas. 

When you break down the walls of the self-centered ego and realize you are one with everything and everyone and live your life with compassion for every living creature, you are on the path of enlightenment - you are on the "Buddha" path. 

The Buddha said:

"Following the path, you shall put an end to suffering.
But you, yourselves must walk the path.
Buddhas only show the way.

I am a Christian. I don't worship Jesus, I follow along the path he has shown me. 



Friday, April 26, 2013

Grateful Coolness in the Heat

a bubbling fountain in the town square near my retreat house

At the end of April it really starts to heat up in the desert. Temperatures have been in the high 90's this week, and tomorrow it's supposed to hit the triple digits and remain that way for some time. 

I have often been asked why I would possibly want to live in a place where the heat got so intense. But the fact is, even in the triple digits, i's not so bad.

 For one thing, it's very dry here - no humidity, and so the heat is not so oppressive. And on top of that, beside the air conditioning, there are "misters" and fountains everywhere. 

I love sitting outdoors at a restaurant under the shelter of a porch,  even in the noonday heat. You see,  all the restaurants out here come equipped with cool, refreshing mist which sprays from little water spigots in the the ceilings and along the walls.  So as you sit and sip a cool drink or eat a meal, you are constantly refreshed by a gentle, cooling mist. It's quite wonderful.

And then there are the fountains. We have several fountains at the retreat house,  and when we go into town there are public fountains in every possible nook and cranny of the little city of La Quinta. 

The fountain in today's post is one of my favorites. You can sit on a bench under a shade tree, look at the flowing water, listen to the bubbling sounds, and it just makes you feel cool.

The other day as I sat in front of this fountain in the 98 degree heat, I was reminded of a "Holy Spirit" hymn that comes out of the ancient Christian tradition.

Many Christian hymns and prayers depict God very anthropomorphically. God is pictured as a man in the distance - up there and out there. God is a Heavenly Father or perhaps a daunting judge - sitting on a throne looking down on his creatures below. 

But,  of course, God is none of the above.  These are simply images to help grasp something of the great mystery we call God. And, for me, these particular images are not all that helpful at all.

The ancient "HolySpirit" hymn I remembered while sitting at that fountain imagined God in a decidedly different way.

In our labors You are rest most sweet.
You are grateful coolness in the heat 

God is not a man out there and up there - at a distance. God is an abiding presence. God is "rest" in our labors. God is "coolness" in the heat of life.  

How refreshing!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Moonlit Drops

the moon rises above the trees at my retreat house


I have discovered many joys living out here in the desert. Every day, from morning until night,  I encounter an ever unfolding beauty in this vast exotic place.  

While the daytime is awesome out here, nighttime is even better. 

After the sun sets, when the moon and stars appear,  I am treated daily to the most magnificent "star show" I have ever seen.  I sit in my meditation garden or venture out a bit onto the desert trails, and when I look up into the crystal clear heavens, it never fails to take my breath away.  

The desert sky at night is untouched by the ambient light of the city. It is pure and pristine. You see stars out in the desert that you have never seen before - the entire cosmos on display. 

Growing up I was always in awe of the vast expanse of the "Milky Way Galaxy," but recently I learned that our galaxy is but one of many other galaxies. In fact, there may be an infinite number of galaxies. 

Looking up into the gleaming cosmos and imagining an infinite number of galaxies is mind-boggling to me, and it always provokes two very different and yet simultaneous responses in my soul - I feel both infinitesimally small and also incredibly immense. 

I look out into the cosmos and I am but a speck in the whole array,  and yet I also realize that I am part of it all. A common energy flows in and through each and every little quark and atom in all the infinity of galaxies, everything springs from and is swimming in the primordial ocean of being we call "God."

So I am part of it all and I languish in the enormity of such a revelation.

There is an ancient saying from the Zen tradition, which I have only now come to truly appreciate in my time in the desert:

"The world? Moonlit drops shaken from a crane's bill"

The entire cosmos revealed and present in the simplest and smallest of things - It's incredible!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Here We Go Again

Church of the "Hagia Sophia" in Istanbul

Just after the Boston bombing suspects were identified as being "Muslim," a local Imam was asked to comment. "Here we go again," was his immediate response. He was, of course, referring to what he feared would be a new backlash against Muslims in this country,  and renewed suspicion about Islam in general - as was the case after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

As I see it, anyone who kills or maims, destroys or condemns in the name of God is always deviating from the core beliefs of any of the mainline religions - Islam included. 

Certainly there are Muslim terrorists who invoke the name of Allah as they commit heinous deeds. But, over the ages, the name of Christ has been invoked in very similar ways - wars have been waged, people have been tortured, cultures have been destroyed, abortion clinics bombed, violent hate speech of condemnation has filled the pulpits of churches - and all in the name of Christ, who preached a Gospel of compassion and condemned no one. 

Over my many years as a priest I have had ample opportunity to interact with Imams and with a multitude of faithful Muslim people. We have prayed together, worked in ministry together, shared meals of fellowship together.  I have been comfortable in mosques and they have been comfortable in churches because we all share common core beliefs.  We believe in one God who is "merciful and compassionate." We also believe that all of us are called to treat our fellow human beings with dignity and respect, and we are all called to work for the common good of all others - friends, family, strangers, even enemies.

A few years back we visited Istanbul. In today's post I have included a picture of the Church of the "Hagia Sophia/Holy Wisdom."  When you first approach this "church," it is somewhat jarring because you can't really tell if it is a church or a mosque.  The center structure with the great Byzantine dome looks very church-like,  and yet is flanked by four minarets.

The fact is that this building has been both a church and a mosque,  and it is now a museum. It was built in the fourth century to be the central "cathedral" of the Christian Byzantine empire,  and it served as the pivotal focus of Eastern Christianity for 1000 years. It then was converted into an Ottoman Mosque and served as a mosque until recent times.

Interestingly enough, even when the structure became a mosque, it's distinctly Christian elements were never destroyed. Rather the iconography of Islam was simply added to the existing structure. 

Inside the "church" you will find beautiful mosaics of Christ and the apostles along with large panels of Arabic calligraphy - a great testimony to two diverse religious traditions standing side by side, seeking the truth together.

Yesterday I came across a wonderful Sufi prayer from the Islamic tradition. It seemed appropriate to post it today:
O You, whose light clears away all clouds,
dispel the mist of illusion from the hearts of the nations, 
and lift their lives by your grace.
Pour on them your limitless love,
Your ever shining light, Your everlasting love,
Your heavenly joy and Your perfect peace.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Unable to Argue

one of the many caves in the desert mountains outside my retreat house

At the beginning of this month (on April 2),  I posted a reflection about the "Desert Mothers and Fathers." 

They were a group of 4th century Christians who moved away from the formal structure of the institutional church in order to be more faithful followers of Jesus, dedicating their lives to live according to Christ's teaching.

They moved away from the cities, and lived in mountain caves in the deserts of Syria, Egypt and Gaza.  Their life together was extremely simple - essentially devoid of "creature comforts"  And yet their common life was also filled with the deep peace that comes from living in compassionate relationship with others who are deeply in touch with God's holy and abiding presence.

As I take my daily walk in the desert,  I pass by numerous little mountain caves, and as I walk along I am daily reminded of those cave-dweling "Desert Mothers and Fathers." They are my spiritual ancestors and their spirit seems to linger out here in the desert with me.

The Desert Mothers and Fathers left behind a wide array of stories and wisdom sayings. I often read these stories and meditate upon their wisdom as a source of spiritual refreshment for my own wilderness journey.

Today, as I passed by a mountain cave, I recalled a story of which I am particularly fond. It speaks volumes to our own contemporary culture,  so racked with violence and shackled by contentiousness. 

"Two desert monks had lived in community with one another for many years. They had never had a quarrel. One monk said to the other, 'Let's have a quarrel with each other as other men do.' The other answered, 'I don't know how a quarrel happens.' The first said, 'Look here, I put a brick between us and say, 'That's mine.' Then you say, 'No it's mine.' This is how you begin a quarrel.  So they put a brick between them. And one of them said, 'That's mine.' The other said, 'No, it's mine.' He answered,  'Yes, it's yours. Take it away.' They were unable to argue with one another."




Monday, April 22, 2013

Live Simply

a simple green bush adorns the barren desert landscape

When we moved into our home out in the desert, my wife and I had to severely "downsize" our accumulated belongings of many years. It's amazing how much "stuff" you can stack up over almost 35 years of marriage.

Our closets were filled with clothing we hadn't worn in years. Our basement and garage were overflowing with "stuff" - pictures, furniture, vinyl records, cassette tapes, toys, games, drawings from when our boys were small children. There were boxes everywhere - things we hadn't unpacked from our last move. Our cabinets were filled with dishes, glassware, pots and pans, small appliances, cooking utensils and kitchen gadgets that had sat unused for decades. 

It was a great revelation to me that we had acquired so much "stuff," but the greater revelation was that we had kept all that "stuff" for so long.

So we cleaned it all up,  and gave most of it away, vowing we would not move what we could not use

Now that we have much less "stuff, " it feels good.

The cartons and boxes of things in my closets, cabinets, basement and garage were very symbolic to me of the amount of "baggage" I have accumulated over the years. I'm not just talking about my things and possessions, I'm talking about all the baggage - the pressures, worries, concerns, agendas, strategies. 

Somehow getting rid of all my things has also helped me to sift through all the other baggage in my life, and it has helped me focus upon living more simply - open and available  to living in the moment, attuned to what life presents to me today. 

A more simple lifestyle has helped clear the way for a deeper spirituality.

The desert is a wonderful place to practice living more simply.  The landscape is vast and barren and yet the simple trees, cacti and flowers decorate it beautifully.  It's a simple and yet an elegant place to be. 

The Buddhists teach, "Less is more." The desert is a perfect place for my Christian soul to acknowledge this Buddhist wisdom:   

The Buddha taught, "Meditate, live simply, be quiet, Do your work with mastery."

To that, I say "Amen!"




Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Faithful Companion

our dog "Gus" posing for a snapshot 

Today I want to introduce you to one of our two dogs. His formal name is "Augustine," but we call him "Gus." (The other dog is Hildegard/Hildy, and I'm sure she would be highly incensed if she knew I was only talking about Gus).

Gus is normally by my side from morning until night. He sleeps at the bottom of the bed, and when I wake up in the morning I can always expect to see Gus staring in my face, giving me a morning "lick."  

Gus is very loving and affectionate (and also rather mischievous). He loves to cuddle up next to me whenever he can,  and he thinks he is a lap dog rather then a big Lab. Whenever I feel sad or anxious,  I can always count on Gus to put a smile on my face. He walks with me on the desert trails, swims in the pool, sits next to me in the meditation garden, watches TV with me...Yes Gus is a full-fledged member of my family. Gus walks right along next to me and my wife on our journey in life.

Several years ago, I was an assistant to the bishop back in Central New York. In this capacity, I would regularly visit and consult with various parishes and religious institutions in the Diocese.  Of all the many places I would visit, I particularly enjoyed my time with a group of Anglican nuns. 

I remember the very first time I came to their convent. I was there to lead a Sunday service in the convent chapel. As the service began, lo and behold a rather large and not too quiet dog lumbered into the church,  plopping himself down on a pillow designed just for him right next to the altar. 

No one seemed to "bat an eye," so I just continued on with the liturgy.

At first I was sort of disconcerted with all this. It seemed somewhat sacrilegious.  A dog at the altar attending Sunday Mass, lying on his own designated space near the altar? That was a "first" for me.

After the Mass was over, I asked one of the nuns about their dog and why he was so visibly present in church. I still remember her response, "He is our faithful companion - part of our family." She went on to tell me that the sisters saw a reflection of God in their canine companion -  loyal, always present, and loving without conditions.  So why wouldn't he be in church with them?

On this Sunday morning,  when I awoke to the traditional morning lick from Gus, I remembered those nuns and what they taught me about their faithful companion, so that's why I wanted you to meet Gus today. 

Yes, for me, Gus is a reflection of God - an ever-abiding faithful presence. 

Gus also teaches me something about the way I myself might act on my own life's journey. He teaches me to be be a "faithful companion" to those who walk the path of life with me. He teaches me to be loyal to my fellow travelers on the journey, to be an abiding presence for those walking on the way with me,  and above all, he teaches me something about loving others without conditions.







Saturday, April 20, 2013

Retribution

an oasis of palm trees in the middle of the desert floor

There is a trail just outside my retreat house. Winding it's way throughout the desert wilderness, the trail   leads to a  beautiful and refreshing oasis of palm trees. By the time I get to the oasis, I'm usually ready for a rest - weary from the long walk in the desert heat. The trees in the oasis offer a surprising amount of shade. It's a place where I can look out over the vast landscape, sit, rest and reflect - trying to get to an inner place of deeper wisdom.

I write a daily meditation on this blog hoping that it also may be an oasis for those who stop here and visit. I write these posts that they may be a place of refreshment in the wilderness of life.  I offer these daily meditations hoping they will be a source of deeper wisdom.

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the events that have gripped this country over the past few days with the Boston bombings and the subsequent capture of one of the perpetrators of the horrible violence.

I was particularly struck with the almost-immediate "gut reaction" coming from so many people upon hearing the news that the young man who planted the bomb had been apprehended. The visceral calls for retribution were as stunning to me as the violence of the tragedy itself. People have been hurt and now people want revenge. Now it's time for payback.

And, of course, the spirit of vengeance hasn't been confined to the desire for retribution for that young man alone. Some people now call into question whether or not we have been too liberal with immigrants, challenging the wisdom of welcoming foreigners into our land - especially Muslims. Once the seeds of vengeance are planted, they quickly grow into a tree yielding poison fruit.

Obviously we all want to be safe in the pubic marketplace,  and of course those who harm us need to be accountable, but I think that "vengeance" as a response to injury always leads to deeper injury. 
,
We are created to be in relationship with one another, and vengeance and retribution makes us more alienated from our very nature as human beings. Vengeance and retribution are attributes of our baser self,  not characteristics of our better angels.

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus teaches, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." My guess is that this is probably not a popular sentiment among many people on this day as they cry out for retribution. But while it  may not be popular, this teaching is filled with a deeper wisdom.

When we allow the spirit of retribution to infect us - our world, our nation, our own personal lives - we are eaten away and our spirits consumed.  When we allow the spirit of vengeance to have sway in our lives, we become less than human.

So let us bless those who have cursed us and pray for those who have abused us.







Friday, April 19, 2013

Somehow This Madness Must Cease

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall

Ever since the bombing of the Twin Towers on 9/11, I have felt like I am living in a war zone,  and more recently it has become much worse. 

The shooting of an Arizona congresswoman,  the movie theater massacre in Colorado, the shooting of the innocents in Newtown, the recent Boston Marathon bombings and the shootout on the streets between police and the two brothers who were responsible for the bombings have left me feeling "shell-shocked." 

And then, on top of it all, operating out of a sense of political expediency, our own public officials in congress have refused to place any controls whatsoever on the kind of military-style assault weapons used by those deranged shooters in these various incidents of rampant violence.

It sometimes feels to me as if a type of "madness" has crept into our society.

Last October I had a chance to visit the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington. For me, the shrine to Dr. King is a holy place.  As I stood in front of his stone carved statue which is surrounded by granite tablets containing some of Dr. King's notable quotes, I felt a sense of awe. 

For me, Martin Luther King Jr. is a great hero. He had the courage of his convictions up to the point of giving his life for the cause of compassion.  His life and teachings are a shining example of promoting the dignity of every human being. There aren't too many heroes like him in our society today. Maybe that's the problem.

In response to the prevailing violence infecting the culture of his own time and place, Dr. King once said, "Somehow this madness must cease, we must stop it now...Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence in a descending spiral of destruction which must be broken, or we shall be plunged into dark annihilation."

These wise words of a great prophet profoundly speak to us today in our own time and place. We must stop the madness. We are in a spiral of destruction. And we must not meet violence with vengeance. 

As I reflect upon the descending spiral of destruction of the past years, my resolve becomes stronger than ever to "practice compassion."  

The powers of darkness and destruction can only be defeated when each and every one of us live our everyday lives working for the common good, promoting one another's dignity, reconciling and forgiving.  When we do this, our lives will generate light - the kind of light that defeats the darkness. 

Dr. King, pray for us!

Somehow this madness must cease. 




Thursday, April 18, 2013

Seize the Day

another day comes to an end

Last evening, as I sat and watched yet another sunset, I reflected on how quickly the day had passed.  Indeed "time flies." 

As I sat and watched the sunset,  I recalled a time in my life many years ago. It was late December, 1988. I was a Chaplain at Syracuse University and we were all facing a great tragedy as PanAm Flight 103 was bombed over Lockerbie Scotland. Almost 30 Syracuse students were on that plane. The community was devastated.

While I have many bittersweet memories of that time, one of my clearest recollections involved a conversation I had with a student on the night of the crash. He had been good friends with one of the victims killed in the bombing. He came to my office in a state of unconsolable grief,  in great pain over the loss of his friend,  but also in pain over the loss of his own innocence. 

I still remember him covering his face,  and through the tears and sobs telling me, "It wasn't until today that I realized I too am going to die one day."

At first I thought that this was sort of a ridiculous statement - the product of immaturity. Of course we all know we are going to die someday. But over the years,  as I have reflected upon that encounter, I wonder if the voice of that student may not be the voice of many people who haven't actually come to grips with the reality of our human condition - some day we all must die.

The time we have for our life on this earth is brief and limited -  it passes quickly. 

There is an old Latin saying, "carpe diem" - "seize the day."  Sometimes this is interpreted as, "use the time you have to accomplish all the things you want to do before its too late." I have another interpretation of "seize the day."

I think you "seize the day," by living in the present. When I can appreciate what I experience at each moment of the day - the beauty, the joy, the sorrow, the pain, the hope, When I am fully present to each person I meet and to each event that occurs, without distraction,  then I am "seizing the day. "

The richness of life always comes to us in the "now".  It is in the now that I encounter God. It is in the now that I am in touch with my deeper truer self. 

There is a wisdom saying that come from the 4th century desert Mothers and Fathers: "A desert monk once said, 'If you lose gold or silver, you can find something as good as you lost. But the one who loses time can never make up what he has lost."

Before I know it, there will be yet another sunset. So, before that sunset comes, I want to "seize the day,"  live fully in the now, attuned and present to the richness life has to offer.




Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Really Real

a tree in the desert blooms in the springtime


I look forward to beginning my day with a cup of coffee and the newspaper.  Today, as I was reading the many stories  reporting local and world events, I realized just how much we all live in a world that is "interpreted" for us.

Newspapers and TV reports always contain a section for editorials, personal comments and opinions. But, the truth is that every news story is somewhat of an interpretation of what is being reported. You can read about an event in the Wall Street Journal and then read about the same event in the New York Times and you get two different stories.  You can watch FOX news reporting a story and then go to MSNBC and it hardly seems like the same event. 

The same is true about our everyday life-- everything is seen through interpretive lenses.  Our conversations and interactions with one another are always filtered through our interpretations. The way in which I personally view who I am, my view about others with whom I interact,  my ideas and understandings about what is happening in my world are always influenced by many filters of perception based upon how I have learned to interpret the world. 

There are many who say that it is impossible to arrive at what is really true or "really real" because you just can't escape human interpretation. 

 But I don't agree. 

I think that, at the heart of all reality there is a universal Truth- a Universal Abiding Holy Presence common to all humankind. Some call this abiding presence, GOD. This abiding presence is at the core of all existence. This abiding presence is what is "really real," and I think at some deep level of our awareness, humankind can "tap into" what is "really real."

We will never be able to define or accurately describe this Holy Presence with words or formulae or doctrine. We can only be immersed in an experience of this Presence - sometimes in poetry or song or music. Sometimes in silence and reflection.  

And yet, this "really real" presence is available to us at some deep level of awareness, beyond our interpretations.  

This is what the spiritual journey is all about--seeking out and being open to what is "really real." 

I came across a wisdom teaching of Rumi, the Sufi mystic poet, that beautifully expresses today's reflection about the "really real:"

Thinking gives off smoke to prove the existence 
of fire. A mystic sits in the burning.
There are wonderful shapes in rising smoke
that imagination loves to watch. But it's a mistake
to leave the fire for that filmy sight.
Stay here at the flame's core.


So I put down my newspaper and turn off the TV. I walk out into the desert and silently stand before a desert tree flowering in the springtime -  and it's "really real."


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston, Bombs, Blaming God

the sun goes down in the desert skies

Yesterday was supposed to be a day for the nation to participate in a venerable "springtime" ritual with the running of the Boston Marathon. Instead, it was yet another opportunity for us all to be reminded of just how fragile we are and how frightening this world can be.

As I watched the media coverage of the exploding bombs wantonly killing and maiming those innocent people (especially the children), I saw a picture of one particular bystander who was on her knees, looking up into the skies, praying. I was wondering if she was asking about where God was in all the tragedy around her.

I am sure many people blame God for an event like bombs exploding in Boston, perhaps wondering "How can a God of love allow such suffering and violence?" or maybe even, "Why did God send such terrible suffering - was it some kind of punishment?"  

Well, I have to say I don't actually think God had much at all to do with what happened yesterday. Human beings, driven by ego, selfishness and a violent spirit were the cause of the bombings.

I don't at all believe in a God who sits up in heaven behind some master control panel, manipulating events "down here" on earth, allowing some to suffer, others to go free. I simply believe that God is an all-abiding Holy Presence, ever with us in the good times and the bad. 

So rather than blaming God for suffering or wondering why God allows suffering, I simply say, God is with us in it all.  And then I can surrender my spirit with an assurance of this ever abiding presence, knowing that we are never alone, come what may.

There is a beautiful psalm in the Hebrew Scripture - Psalm 139 . It celebrates God's all abiding presence in all the circumstances of life.  I found myself reading it after 9/11, after the shootings in Colorado and Newtown, and I found myself reading it last night.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven you are there.
If I make my bed in the underworld,
you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, surely the darkness shall cover me
and the light around me becomes night,
even the darkness is not dark to you,
the night is as bright as the day.


Monday, April 15, 2013

Sometimes Use Words

An Image of Saint Francis in My Meditation garden

Last evening as I sat in my meditation garden and looked at a depiction of Saint Francis of Assisi hanging on the wall,  I thought about why I hold Francis up as such a hero in the spiritual journey.

Saint Francis once said, "Preach the Gospel always, sometimes use words." For me, that phrase pretty much summarizes why I like him so much.

Francis was born into great wealth. He was a self-indulgent libertine. When he returned from the Crusades, he had a conversion experience. He saw the utter meaninglessness of his ego-driven life, and he gave it all up - his wealth, his social status, his power. He devoted his entire life to serve the needs of others, especially those who were poor and who lived on the margins of life.  He gave up his ego and he found his genuine self.

I write these daily posts to share my spiritual journey and to, hopefully, offer some guidance for others on a soul-searching journey.  But I think there is an inherent danger in trying to walk along a deeper spiritual path. It is very easy to do a lot of "navel-gazing" in the process of soul searching. 

 Of course, meditation, reflective time, silence and introspection are all part of the spiritual journey of awakening; however the "awakening" process always demands some kind of response, some kind of action. 

In the process of finding my deeper, truer self, I inevitably come to experience the profound connection we all have with one another.  This must lead beyond internal introspection to the actual "practice" of compassion in my everyday life in my world.   Otherwise the spiritual journey is self-serving and egocentric - and therefore it is not a spiritual journey at all. 

The Buddha once said, "However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act upon them?"

Today I will try to preach the gospel, perhaps sometimes using words. 





Sunday, April 14, 2013

Rest

a solitary figure plays the pan flute in the open desert

A few Sundays ago, my wife and I were walking along a desert trail above the retreat house,  when suddenly we heard the plaintive sound of a pan flute filling up the open space and echoing off the mountains.  In the distance we saw a man, standing on the desert floor, looking up into the heavens and playing his mystical, soul-filled song.  

As I stood there, immersed in  the beauty of the desert, with the music wafting through the air, I felt an incredible sense of peace. 

When I was a parish priest, Sunday mornings were anything but peaceful - the services, sermons, meetings, baptisms, special services. For me, Sundays were hardly a day of rest. But I suppose that, for most people, Sunday is no longer a day of rest.

Nowadays many people have to go to work on Sunday. Even if Sunday is a "day off," it's often a time  to do the errands and the household chores, go shopping, catch up on the emails,  and get ready for the work week yet to come. 

Some 1500 years ago, Saint Benedict (the "father" of Western monasticism) spelled out a spiritual pathway for his monks, consisting of daily doses of prayer, study, work and rest. Yes, for Benedict "rest" was an important and necessary part of the spiritual journey.  

Too much work, too much prayer or study and no rest, would lead to the soul getting weary and dried out. Without rest the spiritual journey becomes tedious.  I think Benedict was exactly correct.

A few Sundays ago,  as I listened to the pan flute echo off the mountains, it was a moment of gentle rest for me, and I realized that I probably hadn't "rested" for a long time. I need to be more "restful" along my soul-searching path. 

Maybe we can reclaim Sunday as a "Day of Rest," or at least be sure to include "restfulness" in the routine of our everyday lives.  Take a nap, listen to some music, go to a park, take a bike ride. 

Rest!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Uniquely Beautiful

a  "roadrunnner"poses for a picture at the desert retreat house 


Unless you live in the desert or have spent time in the desert, it's unlikely that you've seen this bird up close and personal. I met my first roadrunner last year on a desert trail. Up until then, the only roadrunner I had ever encountered was an animated cartoon character from my childhood days.

Yesterday as my wife and I (along with our two dogs) were in our courtyard reading, a roadrunner came and perched on our wall. Usually they scurry off if you get too close - especially at the sight of dogs - but not this one. She just sat there and we both looked at one another. So I asked her if I could take her picture, and as I was snapping this shot,  I knew what I would write about today.

A roadrunner is unlike any other bird I've ever seen. In fact, roadrunners are similar to other birds but also very different. Roadrunners don't pick at seeds or flowers, they are meat-eaters, feeding on other smaller birds or rodents.  Roadrunners have wings and feathers but they don't actually fly, rather they run, scurrying along on their two feet (hence their name), and they flap their wings to hop over fences or into trees.  And roadrunners sort of sound like birds, but the low guttural clucking they make is a far cry from the sweet chirping birds that wake me up every morning.

Roadrunners are very hard to categorize. I would say they are an "odd" creature but,  far from being odd, they are "uniquely beautiful." And herein is a lesson that the desert has taught me once again.

When I was a college professor, I taught several courses in Interpersonal Communication, and I often recited a basic "rule of thumb" about relationship-building. I would regularly advise my students, "Look for differences in similarities and similarities in differences." In other words, whenever you think you understand someone, or whenever you move toward categorizing another, placing them into a box of other similar people, look for differences. And whenever you see another as different, look for how they are similar. See each person as uniquely beautiful.

Yesterday as that little creature posed for a picture, I thought about "similarities in differences and differences in similarities." All of us human beings - all God's creatures, great and small- so uniquely beautiful.
  






Friday, April 12, 2013

Chaos and Clutter

a  bubbling fountain and the Buddha in my meditation garden

When we first moved to Southern California I was incredibly intimidated about driving on the highways here. I must admit, things haven't changed all that much. Highway driving is still daunting for me,  and I find that I do a lot of driving. 

There are all sorts of highways, interstates and freeways out here.  They all intersect and criss-cross one another forming an intricate web of complexity, baffling even for those who were born and raised in this part of the country.

Sometimes you find yourself driving in eight lanes of traffic -sometimes almost bumper to bumper- speeding along at 75 to 80 mph, people weaving in and out of lanes, motorcycles, cars and trucks all competing for the highway space. 

There are constant crashes,  and so the daily weather reports also contain "highway reports," warning about where the accidents are and what highways to avoid.

Whenever I drive on the highways, I am always tense and somewhat anxious. 

You would think that, since I now live out in the desert, I wouldn't have to drive on such busy and complex roadways - not so. If I want to go anywhere outside the little city of La Quinta, I have to brace myself for the Interstate.

As I drove along on the chaotic and cluttered highway yesterday,  it seemed as if the traffic was more brutal than usual. Then it struck me - there is a big music festival out here in the Coachella Valley this weekend - literally a hundred thousand extra people driving into the desert. The traffic was indeed  more brutal than usual.

While driving along, a thought came to me abut how iconic highway driving is for life in our contemporary culture. All of us speeding along in our own separate cars, trying not to get into a crash with the other drivers, not really focusing on where we are but on where we are going. The routes we take are complex and complicated, and an underlying anxiety is the order of the day.

As I thought about it all, I realized how very important it is to pull over once in a while,  take a deep breath in the midst of everyday life away from the chaos and complexity, and simply be aware of where we are,  as opposed to where we are going.

So, I invite you to take a deep breath.  Visit my retreat house from time to time. I offer these daily meditations on this blog as a "rest stop" along the way.






Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Path of Unknowing

a mystical sunset in the desert


I have a very analytical mind. All my life I have been trying to figure things out. 

I have been a college professor and a teacher, and so I have been an "explainer" of ideas.

As parish priest,  I have explicated church doctrine. I have taught about prayer techniques.  I have been involved with numerous Boards and  committees, developing long range strategic plans to help facilitate church growth.

At some level, explaining and planning work pretty well in cutting through the chaos of everyday life, but I have come to believe that, when it comes to the "spiritual journey," analysis  doesn't work well at all.

I have come to realize that all my attempts at trying to figure God out have generally sprung out of my own need for control. But, you can't control God. You can't explain or contain the mystery of God. 

I have actually come to believe that my soul-search for God demands that I give up my desire to control or explain.  In fact I have come to believe that God's spirit is searching for me more than I am searching for God.

So I spend a lot of time simply trying to be more attuned to life as it reveals itself to me. I try to let God find me,  and in doing so, I become more and more aware of an ever-abiding Holy Presence breaking into my consciousness every day.

I can be sitting in my front courtyard and suddenly a mystical sunset happens, and it's a moment of holy revelation. I can be sitting in the local coffee shop and the couple next to me engages in the simple, tender gesture of holding hands - and again, a moment of holy revelation.

Saint John of the Cross once said, "The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. The soul has to proceed by unknowing rather then knowing."

I wonder what is in store for me today.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Practice Compassion

a quiet place in my meditation garden


I've developed a pretty standard routine out here in the desert retreat house. Almost every morning I go out into my meditation garden and I see what bubbles up in me.

Today I recalled an image of something I recently observed as very emblematic of life in our contemporary American culture.

Recently I was having lunch in a local restaurant when I noticed something very odd. Sitting next to me was a family - mom, dad two teenage daughters.  But, instead of talking or laughing or engaging one another in any way, they sat together in complete silence as each one looked intensely at the screens of their smart phones, pecking away at the keyboards.  They were checking mail, sending out tweets, surfing the web and ignoring one another. This went on for the better part of the entire meal.

 It was, for me, very iconic. And it was also very sad.

It seems to me as if we live in an age where our technologies allow us  to be more connected to one another than perhaps any other time in the history of humankind. And yet, being connected to one another doesn't mean that we are in relationship with one another.

If I were to summarize the primary teaching of virtually every major world religion, it would be this: "Practice compassion!"

The practice of compassion involves respect for one another, treating one another with dignity and respect. Actually you can't practice compassion if your ego gets in the way. The practice of compassion involves a genuine sense that "I" and the "other" are one.  So I do for the "other" what I would do for "me."

You have to work at practicing compassion. It involves engaging others in relationships, sharing your life for the common good and the welfare of others - a far cry from  sharing information.

The Dalai Lama once said, " If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."

Be happy!



Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Resiliency

lush foliage along a desert trail near my retreat house

I am always amazed at the richness of life that comes forth in an apparently barren, dry desert - the sound of exotic birds, the smell of fragrant herbs and flowers, the sight of blooming cacti and budding trees are intoxicating to me.  It's hard for me to fathom how rocky, sandy, dry earth,  almost no rain, and summertime temperatures into the triple digits can generate and nurture such lush abundance.

The desert is a wise teacher.

I walked along a trail today and reflected on the fact that the desert was teaching me something about resiliency. We human beings are indeed filled with potential to bloom and flourish, even when the path of life seems rocky and it seems like we are dried up. 

In fact, the richest and most abundant life can spring up out of the driest places.

I have been reading a book by Dr. Alex Lickerman, titled "The Undefeated Mind." He says something about the resiliency of the human spirit that rings so true to me - especially in light of what I am learning from the desert in which I live:

"An undefeated mind isn't one that never feels discouraged or despairing; it's one that continues on in spite of it.  Even when we can't find a smile to save us, even when we're tired beyond all endurance, possessing an undefeated mind means never forgetting that defeat comes not from failing but from giving up."

Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God is within you." 

May you bloom and flourish today!



Monday, April 8, 2013

Beyond Names

Outside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul

Mahatma Gandhi, the famous Indian peace activist was a Hindu who had deep respect for the many different religious traditions. He devoted his life to find insights from the various different paths people follow in pursuit of the truth.

In referring to how he understood the nature of God, Gandhi once said, "Though we know Him by a thousand names, He is one and the same to all of us."

One of my reasons for offering these daily meditations on this blog here in the desert retreat house,  is to foster a sense of respect for different religious traditions,  and to seek insight from them in pursuit of the truth.

Personally, I am a committed Christian (an ordained priest) and I seek out the insight of other paths BECAUSE I am a Christian. 

When I look at the life of Jesus and study his teachings, I see someone who never treated "others" as "different." At a very deep level,  Jesus was aware of the cosmic unity which is at the heart of all creation. He respected that unity and fostered relationship. 

As a Christian I also want to avoid treating"others" as different,  recognizing that we are all connected to one another.  We have so much to learn from one another.

The picture I have posted today was taken during a trip my wife and I took to Istanbul a few years back. 

We went to Istanbul after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and when we arrived in the city, the sight of mosques, minarets and "calls to prayer" were,  at first, somewhat disconcerting to me. I remember entering the famous and historic "Blue Mosque." Much like the first time I entered a Buddhist Temple in South Korea, the experience inside the mosque immediately seemed so foreign to me. 

But, like my experience in Korea, the walls of difference very quickly fell apart. I was surrounded by fellow pilgrims, all of us with our shoes off because we were on holy ground. I joined in kneeling and praying. All of us calling God many names and yet the same to all.  

Almost daily I read one or another of the many Sufi wisdom sayings (The Sufis are part of the mystic tradition of Islam). I found one today that seems very appropriate for this post:

"In my soul there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church, where I kneel. Prayer should bring us to an altar where no walls or names exist."


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Waking Up

the sun rises over the eastern mountains 
as seen from my meditation garden


Since I included a picture and post about sunset yesterday, today I thought I'd include a sunrise picture.

As I sat in my meditation garden on this beautiful Sunday morning and watched the sun come up over the mountains, I thought a good deal about "waking up." 

Buddhists teach that a person can get out of bed in the morning and spend the whole day (or an entire lifetime) without ever waking up. 

The heavens and the earth glow and pulsate with the Presence of the Holy One, and we are all cosmically connected to everything and everyone. And yet, many people are asleep, unaware of the Holy Presence, unable to experience the cosmic connection which defines who we are.

When we focus only on our own ego needs, our gaze is limited. When we think of our "self" as an isolated and separated individual, we are unable to see and experience the glory of what is beyond us. And so, we may arise in the morning and go about our daily business but we are still very much asleep.

Living here n the desert, bathed daily in incomparable beauty, has helped me to wipe away some of the sleep from my eyes. More and more I find myself waking up.

I found another reflective prayer - this one for the morning time, written by Macrina Wiederker, a Benedictine nun. I recite it often and hope it may help you wake up. 

O Morning Song of Love,
O you in whom we live and move and have our being!
We have been asleep too long.
Heal the unseeing part of our lives.
Lead us to our awakening places.
Awaken us to the new light.
Open the doors of our hearts,
the windows of our souls, the walls of our mind.
Awaken us to hope.
Awaken us to joy.
Awaken us to love.
Make our hearts ready to receive the brightness of your Presence. 


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Until the Shadows Lengthen

a beautiful desert sunset as seen from the front courtyard of my retreat house 



We don't get all the many clouds out here in the desert, but when we do we are always assured of a magnificent sunset. Such was the case last evening and I wanted to share this picture on today's blog.

From time to time I have posted a variety of prayers from various religious traditions. Last evening as I sat and watched the skies glow red in the sunset, I was reminded of a beautiful evening prayer (actually it's a prayer that can be very appropriate morning or evening.)

This prayer was written by John Henry Newman and it comes out of the Christian tradition,  but you certainly don't have to be a Christian in order to appreciate it. 

O Lord, support us all the day long,
until the shadows lengthen,
and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then, Lord
in your mercy grant us a safe lodging,
and a holy rest,
and peace at the last

Amen!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Tremble Before Violence

Praying in a Buddhist Temple in South Korea

All the current hateful and disturbing rhetoric coming out of North Korea lately has prompted me to recall the trips I have made to South Korea (Seoul in particular).  

Each time I have visited that beautiful country,  I have had the privilege of visiting some of the many Buddhists monasteries and temples found in that part of the world.

I have posted a picture of the very first time I ever entered a Buddhist temple in a monastery just outside of Seoul.  At first it seemed so foreign to me - so radically different from my experience in Christian churches. On that first visit, monks were chanting a mantra over and over. Of course I had no idea as to what they were singing,  so I turned to my Korean colleague who was with me on the trip and asked for a translation. "They are praying for peace in the world," was his simple reply.

Suddenly nothing seemed foreign at all.

I was in the company of peace-loving persons of good will, and I was struck with a sense of universality - all of us connected with the one God who in whom we live and move and have our being. 

Seoul is only miles from the border of North Korea. It seems so odd that such destructive words about nuclear threats and world-wide violence would be coming out of anywhere in the Korean Peninsula - a place so saturated with the Buddhist spirit. 

So today I also join with my monastic friends back in Seoul and I also pray for world peace.

The Buddha said: "All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?"

May it be so.


Thursday, April 4, 2013

Words, Words, Words

A "Joshua Tree" in the High Desert

Last month I was leading a men's retreat in the beautiful high desert area of Southern California (not all that far from the desert valley in which I live). I have given many retreats in my life, but on this retreat I found something had changed in me.

In the past, I would give a series of "retreat talks" on various themes. I would present an abundance of ideas and concepts and we would then have conversations about my presentations - words, words, words!

This last retreat was different. After a brief introduction, I asked the participants to go out into the incredibly beautiful desert environment - dotted with Joshua Trees, snow-capped mountains in the distance - and simply sit in reverent silence. I gave them all journals and asked them to eventually write about their experiences.

After a few hours we all convened again and I was stunned at what these guys had written. Some came back with poems, others had taken pictures with their cellphones, some drew pictures,  others had written deeply personal and soul searching accounts of what had happened in those two hours - it was probably the best retreat I ever presented. The truth is, of course, I didn't really lead it at all,  at least not in the traditional sense. There were no lectures, few words, only silence in a desert setting filed and overflowing with God's holy presence - a presence that washed over, cleansed, and refreshed our human hearts. 

Now that I live in a desert, I find myself praying a lot more but using words to pray a lot less.

This all makes me think of  a  great Sufi wisdom saying written by Rumi, the wonderful Islamic mystic-poet:

"Words are accidents and have no substance or final cause. Dwelling on words is dwelling on superficialities. A burning heart is what I want. I want to be the companion of burning, to set the heart afire with love, and utterly burn up thoughts and vain expressions." 

That's what I desire - less words and a burning heart.