Monday, August 30, 2010

What Feeds Your Soul?

When I asked my Iona students to introduce themselves at our first class meeting, I asked the question: What did you do over the summer that fed your soul? As usual, the answers were both interesting and revealing.

Here are some of their answers: going to the beach, visiting friends, spending time with family, travel, spending time alone, doing nothing. The most common answer was a pleasant surprise-- several students worked as camp counselors and said that working with younger kids was soul-nourishing.

While what feeds our souls has an individual element to it, I believe that giving our time in the service of others is universally soul-feeding. We were created in a way that when we give of ourselves that we receive back even more.

I have found this to be true in my life. Even though I have often been a reluctant volunteer, invariably I have found fulfillment in helping others. The fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast was yesterday and it reminded me of a week-long work trip to Gulfport, Mississippi I took four and a half years ago. The work was dirty and hard, but I felt a deep sense of satisfaction at having done a small part in the recovery effort.

What makes helping others even more soul-nourishing is when we don't expect or require anything in return. When we don't expect a reward for self-giving, we receive the "reward" of satisfaction and fulfillment.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The "Mosque At Ground Zero"

As a World Religions teacher, I've been closely following the debate over the so-called "mosque at ground zero." The debate has generated much heat and little understanding. I'm glad that the Roman Catholic Archbishop and Governor of New York have asked those involved to lower the volume.

There is much misinformation about this issue. First, what is proposed is not a mosque, but an Islamic Cultural Center with a prayer room. Secondly, this building is not at ground zero-- it's two blocks away. The question I have for those who oppose this as "too close" is: How far away is ok? 4 blocks? 6 blocks? 10 blocks?

What distresses me is the anti-Islam rhetoric. Because of the actions of 20 Islamic extremists, a religion with 1.5 billion followers is being stigmatized. That's just plain wrong. I wouldn't want Christianity judged by Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber and Roman Catholic. I don't think residents of Oklahoma City would have opposed building a Roman Catholic Church two blocks from the Federal Building that was bombed.

America was founded on the principle of religious freedom and I support the freedom of any religion to build a building wherever they want (if it conforms to local laws and ordinances). The argument that building an Islamic Center near ground zero rubs salt in the wounds of those who are grieving for lost loved ones doesn't hold. Islam is not responsible for this horrendous attack-- terrorists who distorted Islam were.

A better model for religious freedom and tolerance exists at the "second" ground zero site on 9-11: the Pentagon. There, just a few hundred feet from this ground zero, a weekly Islamic service is held. I'm proud that there are persons of reason and tolerance among our military. They are lighting the path of freedom for the rest of us.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Endings and Beginnings

Classes begin tomorrow where I teach and I have mixed feelings. I'm looking forward to beginning a new semester with a new group of students. There is a tinge of excitement and anticipation at this new beginning. On the other hand, the beginning of classes means the end of the freedom to set my own schedule as I have this summer.

Every transition in life brings a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. When a new phase of life begins an old one ends. Endings often involve feelings of loss and grief over what has been lost. Of course, beginnings have a sense of excitement and adventure into the unknown.

We are always moving into an unknown future, even if we don't realize it. Nothing about our personal futures is guaranteed. We live as if life will always continue in the same way with the same comfortable routines. But life changes in an instant and we can find ourselves journeying into new territory.

What remains constant is our spiritual connection with God. This relationship endures the endings and beginnings in life and continues beyond the ending called death. This relationship offers stability, reassurance and hope-- all essentials for a fulfilling life.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Last Hurrah

Since I'm starting back teaching next week, I did a last-hiking-trip-of-the-summer to Acadia National Park in Maine. What a jewel this place is! There are rocky mountains rising from sea level to 1,500 feet with amazing vistas of the dramatic Maine coast. The photo from is of the summit of Gorham Mountain looking down to the shore.

I also love Bar Harbor, the largest town near the park. It's quaint and filled with life this time of the year. As you can imagine, you can get excellent seafood here. I had grilled Atlantic salmon last night.

This 2 day trip feels like a last hurrah for summer. Even though astronomical summer lasts another month, it feels like the season is on the wane. It's colder in the mornings and there is the gradual decrease of sunlight each day as we move toward the Winter solstice.

I feel a certain sadness at the end of most seasons, but especially summer. It's been so great to spend so much time outdoors eating, walking, rowing and hiking. But time moves on like "an ever rolling stream" as one poet put it. And this is good. The movement of time gives an urgency to daily life. We need to enjoy each and every moment to the best of our ability. Once those moments pass, they are only alive in memory.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Keeping Faith

In a group I regularly attend, the question was raised, "How can we keep faith?" When pressed, the person raising the question admitted that his faith in God had been undermined by the depression he was currently suffering from.

I approach the question of keeping faith by looking at a prior issue: How do you lose faith? Since faith is an act of trust, faith can be "lost" when trust is betrayed or broken. When it comes to our relationship with God, we need to be aware of our expectations of this relationship.

When God doesn't act in the way(s) we expect, we might feel deserted or abandoned by God-- especially when we're in a time of distress. When we cry out to God for help, and don't receive what we're asking for, we tend to blame God for being nonresponsive.

We need to examine our expectations of God and how God acts in our lives and world. When our expectations aren't met, perhaps it's a sign that we need to revise our expectations rather than blaming God for not responding as we asked.

When trust is lost in a relationship, it can be rebuilt. This process of rebuilding takes time and patience. If faith can be lost, it can also be found again. What is needed is a commitment to stay in the relationship and work through its challenges. This is true of our relationship with each other and our relationship with God.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Restorative Power of Nature

A front page article in today’s New York Times describes a river raft trip in a remote area of Utah by five brain scientists. The trip’s purpose was to study the effects of nature on the brain. In more sophisticated terms, the purpose was “to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects."

Dr. Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah and leader of the trip, believes that being in nature can refresh the brain. “Our senses change. They kind of recalibrate—you notice sounds, like these crickets chirping; you hear the river; the sounds, the smells; you become more connected to the physical environment, the earth, rather than the artificial environment.”

Other scientists aren’t sure why being in nature aids clearer thinking. One scientist, Dr. Kramer, thought that the exertion of hiking and rafting may play a role. In any case, all five scientists noticed effect on their brains such as the slowing down of time, the clearer perception of sounds and the lowering stress of being away from phones, email, and the Internet.

Here's another effect of being in nature: the restoration of the soul. The soul, our deepest self, is nourished and nurtured by the beauty and the silence of nature—especially when nature is understood as a sacred gift. Nature is one of those places where God can be encountered. Even though God’s presence can be experienced anywhere, it is in nature that we pause and listen. Unfortunately, God often gets eclipsed by the noise and multitasking of everyday life.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Small Stuff

It's natural to be thankful for the big things in life: a new job, a financial windfall, the birth of a child, the end of a war. However, many of the small positives in daily life go unnoticed.

A few years ago there was a book titled, "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff--and it's all small stuff" by Richard Carlson. Carlson's book was filled with practical advice for reducing stress and increasing happiness (there are 100 suggested ideas in the book). One chapter is titled, "Be Grateful When You're Feeling Good and Grateful When You're Feeling Bad."

In other words, don't allow the "small stuff" to undermine your gratitude for the little gifts of everyday life. For example, this summer has set records for heat and humidity in Connecticut. Being outside, and especially exercising, in this sticky tropical air is less than pleasant. At times, I've allowed the unpleasant weather to negatively affect my attitude.

The weather is only one of the little things that can affect gratitude. But, if we can find reasons for gratitude in all circumstances, life would go so much better. The good news is that there are always reasons to be grateful. Rather than cursing the weather, I need to be thankful that I have the ability to exercise and that my sweat glands are working.

There are so many "small" things in life to be grateful for: water, air, food, sleep, clothes, books, coffee, shoes, and so much more. Making a list of things we're grateful for can shake us out of the malaise of ingratitude and help us see daily life for the gift that it truly is.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Be Prepared

The above title is the motto of the Boy Scouts. It's not a bad piece of advice for non-Boy Scouts, too. I'm in the midst of preparing to teach two courses this fall, a world religions course and a Hebrew scriptures course. Syllabi's are due next week and I'm cramming to meet this deadline.

In teaching, preparation is about 80% of the work. Not being well prepared has consequences such as a boring lecture, poor discussion questions, and leaving students with the feeling, "This guy doesn't know what he's talking about."

In hiking, preparation is even more important and the consequences even direr. Running out of drinking water can lead to dehydration. Not taking extra food can result in hunger and a lack of energy. Not dressing properly can lead to sun stroke or hypothermia. Not putting a compass and map in your backpack can lead to getting lost.

Preparation is also important in our spiritual life. So how do we prepare for spirituality? One way is to read books in this field. This can help us become aware of new and different spiritual practices. Another way to prepare is to begin each day in prayer or meditation. A quiet beginning can prepare us for whatever the day brings. Still another way is to take time to reflect on the question, "What feeds my soul?"

So much of our daily life is spent in preparing for what lay ahead. Being well prepared can make all the difference.

Friday, August 6, 2010


In my hiking trip to northern New Mexico, I've hiked through sites sacred to the Cochiti, Zuni, Nambe and Tesuque peoples. I've tried to practice reverence while doing so just as I would expect the same when someone visits a church. The photo above is of Nambe Lake, a sacred place to the Nambe and Tesuque.

I understand reverence as "profound or deep respect" for someone or something. When we're reverent, we are in a state of mind or soul that senses the sacredness of something. This "something" could be a place, a person, God, or even an idea or concept. For example, many Christians feel reverence for the concept of the Trinity and Muslims feel reverence for the Qur'an.

Reverence taken to its logical extreme becomes awe. At times this week, I've felt awe at the profound beauty of what I've seen and experienced. Awe can be overwhelming and is often beyond words. Awe can be evoked by those same things that evoke reverence-- the difference is in the degree.

This week in the wilderness has reminded me that we are surrounded by the sacred. We just need to view the world through the lens of reverence. When we do so, we practice what Albert Schweitzer called, "The reverence for life."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Mountain Lion!

On a hike in the Dome Wilderness in northern New Mexico yesterday, my friend and I came across mountain lion tracks on the trail. The photo on the right shows both front and back paw prints in the mud near a stream.

Suddenly, a pleasant, leisurely hike became a more anxious one. We both hiked with our heads up, looking around for signs of the lion. However, as my wilderness-savvy friend observed, if the lion was stalking us, we wouldn't see it until it charged. I thanked him for this reassuring thought.

We didn't encounter the lion, as attested by the fact that I'm writing this. But these lion tracks were a reminder that we coexist with the dangers of nature. While we usually see nature as peaceful and bucolic, there is danger in the wild. Mountain lions have to eat just like every other animal, including humans. I'm just glad we weren't dinner for this particular lion!

There is some risk in nearly everything we do. Yet, most of the time we are blissfully unaware of dangers. If we hadn't seen the lion paw prints, we wouldn't have given this danger a second thought. The same goes with driving on a highway, eating in a restaurant or crossing a street. We could die as a result of any of these activities, but we do them anyway.

We need to find a healthy balance between knowing the potential dangers of an activity and not over-inflating these risks. Otherwise, we'll always be looking over our shoulders with anxiety and fear. A little fear is a good thing, but too much restricts life and keeps us from living life to its fullest.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Walk in the Clouds

Yesterday, I took a walk in the clouds. This journey through mist was on the La Luz trail to Sandia Crest in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This 4,000 foot climb is a spectacular hike through three different life zones and six different climate zones.

As I started the hike at 6,500 feet in elevation, I could see the clouds high above, looking like a waterfall spilling over the summit. When I reached about 9,000 feet I was in the clouds.

Walking in clouds, especially on mountains, is an other-worldly experience. You feel as if you are alone in the mist. This cloud enshrouded mountain called to mind Moses on Mount Sinai and Jesus, Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. In the Bible, clouds are associated with theophanies (direct encounters with God-- in Greek this word literally means "God light").

I definitely wasn't alone on the La Luz trail. Some 400 runners ascended this trail in an annual race just minutes ahead of me. The fastest runners finished in an hour and a half. Somehow, I feel that they missed the amazing vistas and joy of walking in the clouds. I took this hike slowly, savoring each view of the dramatic rock spires poking through the mist.

Although I didn't have a theophany, I did experience a connection with the Sacred and Holy dimension of life on my hike. I reached the summit, still enshrouded in thick clouds, filled with gratitude for the awesomeness of God's creation.