Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Grace of the World

One of my favorite Wendell Berry poems, "The Peace of Wild Things," follows.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Many of us find our peace in places of natural and wild beauty. Summer in particular is a season to spend some time in wild places through a hike, a boat trip or kayaking, cycling or running. Even sitting on a beach and looking out into the ocean, a pond or a lake can feed our souls.

The key is to find those places where you can "rest in the grace of the world" as Berry puts it. Such places abound if we would open our eyes to the beauty around us and within us.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

In Praise of A.A.

A column by David Brooks in today's New York Times titled "Bill Wilson's Gospel" reminded me once again of the good things about Alcoholic's Anonymous. Here's the link to the article:

Brooks writes, "In a culture that generally celebrates empowerment and self-esteem, A.A. begins with disempowerment. The goal is to get people to gain control over their lives, but it all begins with an act of surrender and an admission of weakness."

In other words, A.A. is counter intuitive. It is based on a paradox that is also at the heart of the Christian faith: in powerlessness is true strength. To surrender ourselves to a Higher Power is to become empowered in deep and powerful ways.

What most impresses me about A.A. is that it lays out a program to transform your soul. The byproduct of this transformation is to gain control over your addiction. Yet, the thrust of A.A. is the salvation of one's soul. The result is deep and lasting moral and spiritual changes.

The evidence of this spiritual transformation can be found in the twelfth step: to help others embark on this same spiritual path. The remarkable genius of A.A., like the genius of Christianity, is its proclamation that the way to abundant life is through weakness and powerlessness.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Above the Clouds

I spent the last night of my Machu Picchu trek at Phuyupatamarca, an Inca word meaning "place above the clouds." We camped at 11,500 feet in elevation and looked down on a cloud rain forest. The photo above is of clouds spilling over the mountaintop.

Being above or within clouds is a mystical experience. There is something magical in being close enough to clouds that you can touch them. Several of my fellow trekkers commented on how awesome it was to look down on a sea of clouds spilling over the mountains as if being poured out of a bowl.

The next morning, we hiked up to a high place to watch the sunrise on Salcantay, a sacred mountain to the Incas. Our guide had each of us take three coca leaves, say a prayer and blow on them three times. This ancient ritual was moving when framed against the first rays of light on the high, snow-capped mountains. The photo below shows what we saw.

Ancient peoples expressed gratitude and awe at the sunrise and sunset, as well as many other wonders of the natural world. There is something so right and so very human about continuing this tradition.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Summer Reading

The phrase "summer reading" evokes images of relaxing with a good book on the beach--reading for pleasure and/or entertainment. Mass market paperbacks are the stock and trade of publisher's book lists in the summer.

However, because I'm teaching a course on the Old Testament in the fall, I am reading the primary textbook, Reading the Old Testament by Larry Bandstra, this summer. In addition, I will be reading several other books on the same subject. Not exactly light reading.

In my reading yesterday about the creation story in Genesis, I came across this provocative sentence:
"The Primeval Story beings with a world-class road trip, a space-time adventure that sweeps us back to ultimate origins... The narrative takes us to the earliest conceivable moment, the cosmic beginning, where we witness the formation of a universe."

Suddenly, my imagination was jolted to life and I began to think about the beginnings of the universe. What an amazing thought: our universe began in a specific moment! This beginning is steeped in majesty and mystery. Bandstra is right in calling it a "space-time adventure." Only through imagination can we enter into this story at its first moment.

My point in sharing this is that even in the driest, densest textbook, there is the possibility of a fresh and creative word being spoken that evokes something deep within us. "The beginning of our universe is an adventure that is still continuing." I could ponder this thought for the rest of the summer, or longer...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Down from the Mountaintop

Having enjoyed several days on mountaintops in the Andes, I'm now back on the plains of daily life. Mountaintops are wonderful places. On a summit you are high above the surrounding scenery and have great vistas. This "top of the world" feeling is thrilling.

No wonder we call spiritual highs "mountaintop experiences." No matter where you are located, a mountaintop experience is one of deep mystery and meaning. Such experiences nourish and inspire our souls. These direct encounters with the sacred dimension of life are energizing and transforming.

A mountaintop is a great place to visit, but we can't stay there too long. At some point, we need to descend from this high place to the plains of everyday life. Life is not lived on mountaintops, but on the plains (and sometimes the valleys) of daily life. Moses came down from Mt. Sinai. Jesus, Peter, James and John came down from the Mount of Transfiguration. Mountaintops are way stations on the journey of life.

Yet, the memories of our mountaintop experiences can sustain us and inspire us in our daily life. They remind us of times of intense spiritual connection where God seems so near that we can reach out and touch the Divine presence. We need to cherish these rare moments while realizing that they are so precious because they are rare. Happy climbing-- and happy descending!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dark Constellations

On a clear night many stars become visible. For centuries, the brighter stars have been grouped into 88 constellations. As children, we learn their names: the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Scorpio, Leo, and so on. For children, identifying constellations is a fun game.

On my recent trip to Peru, I learned that the Incas had a category of constellations very different from the groups of stars we call constellations. They had "dark" constellations in which the space between the stars was emphasized. With the help of our guide I was able to see the dark Llama constellation next to the Southern Cross. The Incas also saw a fox and snake in the dark spaces between the stars.

The concept of dark constellations serves as a reminder of the importance of where we focus our attention. We can be so focused on the brightness of lights that we fail to see the fuller view. Physicists claim that "dark matter" makes up most of the universe. Yet, we can't "see" this mysterious kind of matter.

Dark constellations is a powerful metaphor for the spiritual life. While the "lighter" spiritual values of love, joy, and hope often capture our attention, we also need to pay attention to the "space" between these. An important need of the spiritual life is to create space within us-- a kind of emptiness that is open and receptive to the sacred dimension. For when we are empty there is the possibility of being filled.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Peruvian Pilgrimage

I just returned from an amazing 6 day hiking trip in Peru. The first 5 days involved high altitude hiking above 13,000 feet and the last day focused on a 4,500 foot descent on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Although the famous ruins at Machu Picchu was the goal of this trip, the journey to MP was equally stunning. We took in awesome views of Salcantay, a peak of 20,000+ feet and sacred to the Incas. We hiked down a scenic valley filled with Llamas, sheep, cattle and Andean dwellings. We hiked up and over Salcantay saddle which was 16,000 feet in elevation (the photo above is of me and a fellow hiker on the saddle--I'm the one in back).

This journey fit the classic definition of a pilgrimage: a sacred journey to a sacred place. In a pilgrimage, the journey is as important as the destination. Throughout this journey, I and my fellow trekkers expressed awe, wonder and gratitude at the magnificent beauty of Andean Peru. We were overwhelmed by the brilliant night sky and the stunning sunrises.

I learned that the Inca people believed that all aspects of creation were infused with sacredness: mountains, rocks, trees, stars and, of course, the sun. After walking in their footsteps, I can readily identify with this belief in the sacredness of all creation. We don't need to go on a Peruvian pilgrimage to experience the divinity of the natural world, but the value of a pilgrimage is that it takes us away from our normal routines and enables us to see things from a fresh perspective. I returned home deeply grateful for this wondrous journey.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

An Internet Fast

I've written about food fasts and verbal fasts. So what about an Internet fast? As a blogger, I realize that this idea goes against my own self-interest-- those who aren't on the Internet aren't going to be reading any blogs.

Yet, the value of fasting can apply to the Internet. There was a front page article in yesterday's New York Times about the dangers of too much of our time being occupied with smart phones, Blackberries, computers, and video games. Having the technology to be online for 24/7 can become an addiction to stimulation. This technology can control us rather than us controlling it.

The main danger this article pointed to was mental: we can become so distracted by multi-tasking that our ability to focus and complete tasks is diminished. We are literally being driven to distraction by all of the devices we have.

What are the possible benefits of an Internet fast? First, it can show us that we can live without all of these communication devices. Secondly, we can become aware of how much time the Internet is taking and how much stress it is causing. Thirdly, a fast can free up time to do some of those things that feed our souls: walking in a place of natural beauty, relaxing on a beach, playing a sport, or praying and meditating.

For the next 10 days, I will be taking an Internet fast due to a trip to Peru. Fasting will be easy for me because I won't have access to the Internet while hiking and camping on the Inca trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu. I won't be writing blogs during this time but will blog about this trip after I return. I guess I'll be taking a blog fast as well!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Detoxifying the Soul

A friend of mine is going through a detoxification regimen that involves a liquid diet for a week. The purpose of this is to cleanse the body of toxins with the hoped-for result of feeling healthier and having more energy.

Is it possible to detox our souls? In Buddhism the three "toxins" of the soul are called "the three poisons." These are: greed, hatred and delusion. These three poisons are also viewed as toxic in other religions, too. In Christianity, these are called "vices" as they are in Confucianism.

So how do we get rid of the toxins of greed, hatred and delusion? By nourishing our souls with the corresponding virtues of humility, charity and truthfulness.

A virtue is a habit of character and takes time to instill. Like all good habits, we need to consciously practice in order for the habit to become an unconscious part of us. In other words, we need to practice these virtues religiously.

A virtue can become part of who we are, and who we are becoming. The key to integrating a virtue into our character is conscious commitment. When we keep such virtues in the forefront of our thoughts, prayers and meditations, we are taking the first step to detoxifying our souls.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Vacation for the Soul

Summer is a popular time for vacations. Yet, it can also be a time for pilgrimages. A vacation for the soul is called a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is a sacred journey to a sacred place. It is first and foremost a spiritual journey. Like a vacation, a pilgrimage involves movement and travel, but there are some genuine differences between the two.

So what’s the difference between a pilgrimage to Westminster Abby and, say, a vacation to Disney World? First, a pilgrimage is a concretely physical spiritual practice that involves more than traveling. Most pilgrimages involve walking, hiking and visiting sacred sites along the way. While many vacations also involve physical activity, in a pilgrimage these activities are understood as soul nourishing.

The main difference between a vacation and a pilgrimage is that the journey itself is as important as the destination. This is true even though the purpose of a pilgrimage is to visit a sacred place. When we’re going on a vacation, we want to get to our destination as soon as possible so that the vacation can begin. We get irritated when a plane is late or heavy traffic delays us. On a vacation, the destination is the goal.

A pilgrimage values the journey itself. Christian George, in his book Sacred Travels (InterVarsity Press, 2006) writes:

A pilgrimage benefits the believer in many ways, but above all it gives us a
perspective on God, faith and how we encounter both. I have found that the process
of pilgrimage is more transformative than simply reaching a destination. Each step of the journey involves deeper communion with God, and by the end of it, we discover
that we have encountered him thousands of times along the way.

I'm hoping to do at least one pilgrimage this summer (to Machu Picchu in Peru) and my soul will accompany me.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Tough Self-Love

When is it time to give yourself some "tough love"? This question arose in a discussion yesterday at a chronic pain support group I attend as a spiritual advisor.

This issue come up when one person in the group, who had been depressed over some losses in his life, said that he was "stuck." He had tried medications and psychotherapy, but still couldn't break free of the depression. He has a loving family, including a supportive spouse, who are empathetic and understanding of his painful condition.

Then, one member of the group said, "It's okay to be depressed, but it's not okay to be depressing. You need some tough love to help you move forward." However, this person's spouse was not the tough love type. Another member said, "If your spouse can't do it, you need to give yourself a good kick in the rear."

How do you give yourself tough love? One way is to refuse to wallow in self-pity over your circumstances. Tough love focuses on actions rather than feelings-- it won't let you use your feelings, no matter how painful, as an excuse for not acting in a positive and healthy way.

Tough love can also be a tool in our spiritual toolbox. When we're stuck in a negative place, we can give ourselves a "tough love" good kick in the rear to shake us out of our negativity and malaise. One thing to remember is that tough love needs to be loving-- it needs to be done in the best interests of the one receiving it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Good News for 50+

Are you 50 years old or older? There is some very good news from a recent Gallup poll on happiness. The survey showed that by almost any measure, people get happier as they grow older.

This survey is described in an article in today's New York Times by Nicholas Bakalar titled, "Happiness May Come With Age, Study Says." The Gallup poll took a huge sampling of more than 240,000 people ages 18-85. The overwhelming conclusion was that 85 year-olds are much happier than 18 year-olds.

What this study found is that happiness decreases and anxiety increases from age 18 to age 50. Age 50 seems to be a turning point because well-being increases from that age on.

What is the reason for the increasing happiness at age 50? Dr. Andrew Oswald, a professor of psychology said, "It's [increasing happiness] not being driven predominantly by things that happen in life. It's something very deep and quite human that seems to be driving this."

I'm not surprised. As we age we, hopefully, grow in wisdom and experience. We learn to look inward for happiness and contentment. This looking inward is a spiritual process in which we become less dependent on external factors and more focused on connecting with the sacred dimension of life.

Still, it's nice to see a study confirming the relationship between aging and happiness. As the poet Robert Browning wrote, "Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be..."