Becoming Who You Are:  Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints by Martin SJ, James

Father James Martin is a priest-author that I find writes in manner that leads one to understand the mystery of Christ and provides tools that help the believer (or unbeliever) deepen their faith.[i]  In a mere 90 Kindle pages (90 minutes) he makes the case to invite you to become a saint!  This book is a great way to skim the surface of pursuing a deeper faith.

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My reflections – applying this book to my journey with God

“Find your own Calcutta”[ii]

Inevitably we will suffer in this life from spiritual, physical, and mental anguish.  Our own suffering and perhaps more importantly the suffering of others, left unattended can take us away from God.  When Mother Teresa says above, find your own Calcutta, she is speaking about helping others who are suffering.  Helping others is a powerful spiritual experience but likely will fall short of providing a sustained peace unless we have been attuned to our own suffering and our response to these trials as well.

My own suffering took the form of alcoholic parents, addictions in the family, untimely deaths, shattered confidence and self-esteem as a youngster and young adult, varying degrees of speech fluency, micro personal defeats, and my struggle with alcohol, periods of crisis of faith, and numerous bouts with the seven deadly sins.  The latter I shall define as self-imposed suffering as these biblical sins drive pain and misery in human kind.

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[iii]

My faults are not glamorous or dramatic enough to warrant an Augustinian biography.  My suffering is not uncommon to many.  Relative to others my ability to claim martyr status is pathetic.  They are enough though to deflate pursuit of seeking a holy life – never mind being a saint.     The dialectic of suffering imposed by external uncontrollable events and suffering self-imposed is a surgical cleaver that separates many from faith.  Not to mention failing at to carry such little weight (suffering) relative to what the Saints have carried is very crushing indeed.  How can Father Martin invite the likes of me to be a Saint?

“But no one leads that proverbial “charmed life.”  Everyone’s life is a full measure of graces and blessings, as well as struggles and challenges.  And if we consistently compare our own complicated reality with the supposed perfection of another’s life, is it any wonder that we wish we were other than who we are?”[iv]

It is easy to forget this when in the throes of life.  Father Martin mentions that Merton and Nouwen had the following in common:

“… a lifelong process of self-examination and self-criticism and self-revelations had a point; it was not simply a narcissistic quest for self-knowledge.  Rather, it was a discipline undertaken to allow them to become more loving and more centered on God.”[v]

It is here where I can take refuge, in contemplation.  In contemplation I can take stock in my calling and have gratitude for my many blessings – including my struggles.  In many ways my struggles and suffering have defined who I am today:

“More often than not, those very weaknesses are the most important paths to holiness, because they remind you of your reliance on God.”[vi]

They have provided me with humility and strength that have fueled my passion in the field of social work.  I have had, to date, an excellent career with 14 wonderful years serving homeless families and 13 years serving consumers living with severe and persistent mental illness.  The work I have done with them within my limited role and skill set is not mine.  It has been built on the struggles I have had, suffering experienced, education provided, and skillful people that have surrounded me that both enabled me to lead and provided leadership when needed.  It is daunting work and continues to evolve and call me to serve a different role – none of which has been natural to me. Yet time and time again I am provided with alliances and intelligent people that support the calling I have – to advocate and provide services to vulnerable populations in the most respectful and passionate way possible.  My vocation is one calling.  Interestingly my faith and beliefs are not on stage in my work.  I work alongside people of different faiths and no faith at all.  In a way, I am a “hidden contemplative,” in plain sight doing God’s work (provided I am doing it well).  I also have a calling as a husband, a father, and a community member.  Each of those comes with responsibilities and challenges as well.

mylittlewayistheway

Father Martin quotes St. Therese of Lisieux to make the point that living a saintly life within your calling in life is indeed possible.  “The Little Way” is in doing what you do, whatever that maybe, doing it well.  Whatever you do it is indeed difficult to consistently and persistently do it well over a long period of time – especially if it is deemed a little thing!   How many of us secretly want to be great writers, mystics, or the best in our fields – to do great things worthy of public admiration?  We are all not called to live the life of a hermit, to be great authors, to be priest, martyrs, or the best in our fields.  Thank goodness for that as we cannot be what we are not – we can only be ourselves.  Our strength is in our diversity and our interdependence.

Seeking a contemplative daily prayer can be very simple.[vii]    I have recommended before and will recommend again here the “Daily Examen” below from St. Ignatius.   All of the above is based on a firm willingness to seek God, and for this writer, to seek Jesus Christ.

Take a look today at all your actions and thoughts.  If you had the opportunity to change any of them by applying “What would Jesus think, say or do” would you have acted differently?  And if your answer is yes, do you have the courage to do so and the perseverance to continue to refine your being to be aligned with spiritual calling?    And if you found nothing to be changed – are you truly honest with yourself – or are you not taking on a greater calling that will present you with even greater challenges?

Are we not all fallible perfectionists at heart?

perfection

Don’t Despair – find a Daily Prayer routine:  

  1. Become aware of God’s presence. 
  2. Review the day with gratitude. 
  3. Pay attention to your emotions.
  4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
  5. Look toward tomorrow.

 

[i] https://www.facebook.com/FrJamesMartin/

[ii] Mother Teresa pg 85

[iii] https://www.google.com/search?q=seven+deadly+sins&rlz=1C1TSNJ_enUS718US718&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwicu5WE5-bVAhVJ34MKHeNSCo0Q_AUICigB&biw=1366&bih=589#imgrc=SMCez42iRpEcPM:

[iv] Pg. 30

[v] Pg. 57

[vi] Pg. 86

[vii] http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen

 

No Man is an Island by Thomas Merton

If only we could be an Island onto ourselves the realities of our personal, financial, and socio-political situation would be but just a minor annoyance no greater than an industrious fly begging for our attention.  We could be lost in the solitude of spirituality – one with God in a romantic monastery living a simple life – provided physical and spiritual sustenance by God’s providence.  Unless called to this lifestyle with irrefutable thunderous revelations – for most of us this would be benign spiritual selfishness, perhaps malignant if at the expense of some greater calling that we have ignored.

That luxury is not afforded to ordinary man – and I have an intuition that the solitude and serenity comes at a greater price than most of us are willing to pay.  For most of us, spirituality and oneness with God comes from how we deal with others.  In a word, love for our fellow man.   And even this is easily corruptible if we fall prey to self-sanctification by our self-sacrifice for others.  How saintly am I today?   Shall I give everything I have for the other?

“Heroism in this sacrifice is measured by madness:  it is all the greater when it is offered for a more trivial motive.”  Pg. 15

It is easier to be heroic when it is romantic to do so; the reward is great, or simply the accomplishment self-affirming. There is a place for this heroism.  It still has a measure of honor and not to be substituted for cowardice or simple indifference in the face of another’s adversity.

The spiritually heroic abandon themselves to the “economy of Divine Providence.”   What the hell is Divine Providence?

“I must let faith elevate, heal, and transform the light of my mind.  If he is merciful, and if my freedom is a gift of His mercy, I must show my trust in his mercy by making use of my free will.  I most let hope and charity purify and strengthen my human liberty and raise me to the glorious autonomy of a son of God.” Pg. 16

This is where heroic actions get very tedious.  They may not be well received, acknowledged or noticed.  Worse yet they may be noticed and denounced and attract great trouble and discontent.  They act without an expectations or ownership of being the creator of the action – for the hero is simply acting on what he knows has to be done as a result of sincere contemplation and rigorous honesty with himself (or herself) and his/her God .  It is a way of life that is applied to every action – big or small, and yet humbly completed without drawing attention to one self, unless called to do so.

What is not heroic?  We are given so many decisions to make daily in our personal, financial, and socio-political spheres of influence.  Should not our actions and voice be heard and informed by our conscience?   Our actions are not heroic if we take moral short-cuts – if we fail to dive into the complexities and moral conundrums of our time, knowing that we will inevitably fall short of attaining perfection or even near perfection.  How often have we fallen to the following moral short-cut:

“The immature conscience is not its own master.  It is merely the delegate of the conscience of another person, or a group, or a party, or a social class, or of a nation or of a race. Therefore it does not make real moral decisions of its own; it simply parrots the decisions of others.  It does not make judgements of its own, it merely “conforms” to the party line.” Pg. 27

How often have good people been led astray by powerful nation states, charismatic leaders, political party, or religious fanaticism?    How holy is our current president’s actions (United States), beliefs, and policies?  There is a contingent in the United States that stand by this man for their sense of self-righteousness and for perceived gains in their own economic being and sense of power.  Could they really support this President of their conscience allowed them to do a truly deep dive into his behavior and his policies?  I think not.  In situations like this, let me quote Merton again:

We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are our expression of our inner life.”  Pg. 118

This does not mean withdraw entirely or to assume without a pause that our position is the right and holy position.  While we maybe sanctified in truth we are equally at risk to use our knowledge to be proud:  “knowledge puffeth up” our sense of importance.

It is with humility that we most find our way.  We have guidepost all around us.  Thomas Merton says, “We judge the invisible reality of His Will by the visible and sometimes contemptible signs which show us where His will is found.”

There are simply too many good quotes in this book to capture in this blog.   Merton goes to great depth to depict the balance between interior purity (pursuit of) and external attention.   He finishes with a startling foray into the moment of our death.  If it comes to us as an unwelcome stranger we have probably failed to manage the balance between interior purity and external attention.  (Pg. 263)

A great primer for understanding prayer, conscience, gratitude, sincerity, humility and pursuit of being in the proximity of a holy life.

merton

Cousins: Immortal Enemies?

A sibling rivalry between half-brothers began when the youngest received his father’s birth-right and the eldest went off to a foreign land with a different blessing to prosper as well.

Generations later great religions would wage holy wars claiming true authenticity to a covenant with God.  To put it another way, 3.6 billion people (54% of the world’s population) belong to one of three Abrahamic religions:  Christianity (33%), Islam (16%), and Judaism (.2%).[i]

Abrahamic religions are religions that derive their lineage from the original covenant God had with Abraham.  There were covenants before with Adam and Eve, with Noah, and later with Moses.  However, Abraham had a formal unwavering Covenant from God.  The Old Testament mentions the word covenant 280 times!  The Covenant with Abraham was a lasting promise where God promised land and success to all of Abraham’s descendants.

Much of our law and our societies are based on agreed covenants between people, states, and nations that it is worth defining the term here:

Definition of covenant

  1. 1: a usually formal, solemn, and binding agreement :  compact… international law, which depends upon the sanctity of covenants between rulers. — George H. Sabine
  2. 2a:  a written agreement or promise usually under seal between two or more parties especially for the performance of some action the deed conveying the land contained restrictive covenantsb :  the common-law action to recover damages for breach of such a contract[ii]

These three religions all believe in one God but have very different and clashing views.  The half-sibling connection?   Abraham had two sons:  Ismael the first son and Isaac the second.  Ismael went off to a land that would become Muslim and predominately Arab.  Islam claims lineage from Ismael while Judaism and Christianity from Isaac.  It is not as simple as I have stated here – but this enough detail for the purpose of this writing.

Portions of the nation of Islam are at war with non-Muslims today.   The Koran and other teachings of Islam have plenty of Holy Scripture references from their prophet Muhammad that legitimize violence in the name of God.  You either live within the “Abode of Islam” or “Abode of War.”  Mohammed’s early years in Mecca and later years in Medina saw a military shift in both his actions and his revelations (114 Suras) that were not written down until about 118 years after his death in 750 Common Era (CE)!   His prominent preaching occurred from 610 CE until his death in 632 CE.  The move to Medina marks the end of “The Era of Ignorance” in 622 CE and is called the Year of the Hegirae!

Death to the Pope

Christianity, a little bit older than Islam had its periods of violence as well.  However, it is difficult to attribute Christianity’s Crusades with the writing and teaching of Jesus Christ.   Their folly into violence I place squarely on human beings misusing scripture and being all too human.

Crusades

Judaism is the oldest and is accepted by both Christianity and Islam!   However, Judaism does not accept the Prophets Jesus Christ or Mohammad.  Christians do not accept Mohamad!  Both believe their Prophets were the last messengers from God.  The Old Testament has many different references to violence and war.  To be fair, most of the references are from the Jewish people seeking relief  from oppression or slavery.

violence

All three religions have roots in helping the poor and being oppressed in different epochs of time.  By sheer numbers alone, and if one is not a Holocaust denier, the Jewish people have endured the brunt of religious oppression.

To put this time period into perspective let’s look at time along a continuum with the Creation of the World being the year 1 and today being the year 5777 if time were linear without the B.C. and C.E.

Day 1:  Creation of the World

Day 6:  Adam and Eve – Garden of Eden (say 3500 – 3900 BC)

Year 1656:  Noah and the Great Flood

Year 1812:   Abraham (The Covenant)

Year 2240:  Moses

Year 2494:  David unites the Israelites!

Year 2594:  Israel finds itself in-between Egypt and Assyria – two great powers that would overrun them many times.

Year 3490:  Jesus Christ is born.

Year 3525:  Jesus is crucified at age 34 (say 30 CE).

Year 3565:  Earliest writings begin somewhere from 40 to 60 years after Christ death.

Year 3815:  Emperor Constantine adopts/converts to Christianity.  This is troublesome in the long run.  The church that started out as non-political gets wedded to the state.  Pope Urban the II and Pope Innocent the IVth would condone force for converting non-believers down the line.   Nowhere is this in the writings and preaching of Jesus Christ or in his actions.

Year 4100:  Mohammad is Born (say 610 CE).

Year 4132:  Mohammad Dies (say 632 CE).

Year 4236:  Koran written capturing Mohamad’s revelations (Suras).

Year 5777:  The actual year is now 2017.

If each generation passed every 40 years on average we have only been around 144 generations.  How far back does your family tree go?  How far back does your oral tradition go?  How knowledgeable are your kids regarding the history of your family, your nation, your faith?

There is plenty room for error in almost 6000 years of human existence.

The three religions

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam:  The Monotheists Course Guide by F.E. Peters, PHD (A Modern Scholars Course) attempted to provide an objective viewpoint of the similarities and differences between these three religions.  I enjoyed his detailed views on Abraham, Jesus Christ, and Mohammad and the traditions and sacred writings that later formed the three great religions.   I am Catholic and hence a subjective reader.   The history of Islam here and the life and times of Mohammad were very troubling in this course.

The degree to which Jihad is ingrained in the prophet’s actions and the religions sacred writings is utilized today to justify ISIS and other violence.

The history of Judaism has war and violence as well both in actions and in scripture.  However, their beliefs and practices have had many reformations over the last 6000 years and they account for only .2 percent of the world population.

Christianity does not have the scriptural or the prophet example to justify violence accept it does accept the Old Testament.  However, Jesus Christ is a redeemer who gave us a new covenant that for all practical purposes abolished many old ways.

If you are a Muslim reading my post please reply and explain how the “Abode of War” and Muhammad’s violent history is not applicable today?  If you are Jewish, please explain to me where and when the second coming will be here and how a God is only here for the “Chosen People.”  If you are a Christian, it has been a longtime since Christ death.  When exactly is the end of the world?   There are too many questions!

E Peters covered an excellent review on how people pursue an understanding and achieving a proximity to God: Direct revelation (thru no effort on our part – as revealed to our ancestors and given to us in scripture), Theology (formal study and pursuit of knowledge), Asceticism (self-denial of worldly things and pursuit of God’s way), and Mysticism.   The latter is the most intriguing and dangerous.  We have very few true mystics in our history.  How many of us have truly heard the voice of God talk to us? Too often men of this world purport to be mystics for evil purposes or believe they are mystics without having a true relationship with the God of Abraham.

I raise these avenues of pursuit of a higher understanding of a spiritual transcendence as religion as it is today cannot be static.   People of the word of God, of the Abrahamic line, are not acting and promoting a lifestyle that portrays a transcendent God.

To be Holy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is to aspire to live a holy life.    If F.E Peter’s description of our religions being cousins is at all close to reality, we have in 6000 years destroyed our sense of kinship.   In the name of man alone each has claimed moral authority without legitimate sanction over the other.

As a member of the Christian faith, I am saddened by the lack of evidence and historical verification that is present for Islam and its founder.  Much of what is written cannot be verified by other sources.  My inclination is Islam cannot be an extenuation of the Abrahamic line.  The Jews feel about Jesus Christ.

Yet, I know many Muslims that are peaceful people and follow a reformed set of Islamic principles.   But they cannot define for me the justification for deviation from the Koran and the more orthodox Islamic scholars.  There is a bridge between me and Muslim beliefs that escapes my yearning for ecumenical thinking and bridging our faiths on our commonalities.   I know the orthodox Jews may feel the same way about Christians – but at least I can understand their disbelief in Jesus Christ and my church.

I am living in a glass house as well.  I cannot throw rocks at my cousin religions as my own house is in a state of disrepair in many ways.

Are we Immortal Enemies?  Have we created a hatred and suspicion so deep that we cannot possibly approach a transcendent God?

Let us assume, that tomorrow was the day of reckoning.  And we were called to be accountable for our actions in threes.   Together, three cousins we are with Three faiths o facing a transcendent God together.   And we are asked to explain just how is it that the three of us, cousins by descendants, linked by the covenant, stand before God without working out our differences before this day?

Or even without the messianic end of the world coming in our time, how are we living up to being holy, to striving to create heaven on earth, to preparing ourselves and our brothers to live in harmony now?

If the age of Ignorance was truly over as proclaimed by Islam would we not be farther along at this time in our history?

transcendent

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abrahamic_religions

[ii] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/covenant

Are we keeping our part of our covenant with God as we understand him, whether we be Jewish, Catholic or Muslim?

broken

Mercy? Self-Compassion?

“And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Micah 6:8

A simple calling that many of us aspire to practice in all our daily affairs.  Micah is ancient, from the Old Testament, 686 B.C., telling us the importance of justice, kindness, and humility.

We may secretly believe we are doing a fine job – or may even boast of our temporal success!  The latter instantaneously crashes our spiritual intentions before our vocal cords cease vibrating, before the words form, before sounds from the air on our God given breath escape our mouth, our humility is lost.

If only we had errors of omission to be concerned about perhaps we could get a pass for these transgressions.  What about our active permission or even execution of unjust acts, meanness, a simple claim of moral superiority or self-righteous indignation.

We are a long way from Micah’s days and have had generations to lose our sense of spirituality, of universal truths, of a desire to have and maintain a conscious contact with God.  So far removed are we as a people that we are numb to micro and macros transgressions we see every day — hunger, poverty, oppression, violence, and the many forms of the seven deadly sins.  Even if we were to claim that we are powerless over the society in which we live, we still have our own individual actions which no doubt fail not only God’s standards, but our very own watered down standards, which at the slightest provocation, can be adjusted to meet our sense of our grandiose circumstances.  Our afflictions are so high even Job would tremble to be in our shoes.  Sometimes I think he actually might be trembling for our human condition these days.  All is not lost.

Author Anne Lamont presents a solution for our miserable actions in her book Hallelujah Anyway.  As far as I can tell Anne has had plenty of challenges herself (mental health, alcoholism, and trauma) in her life and has come out the other side with a career of multiple successful books.

This book takes a look at the “lingering effects of Trauma and Paralyzing Fear” on people’s ability to live a holy life and maintain a conscious contact with God – or even to maintain a conscious contact with their own sense of self.  Mercy and forgiveness are foundational:[i]

Practicing Mercy towards others and towards yourself is the answer she defines for all the broken souls that are seeking peace.  Anne Lamott says “Mercy is radical kindness.” This is not a unique concept for excellent health – it has many authors from many different fields promoting its value.

Kindness

Starting with oneself is almost always a good idea.  I know several of my weaknesses can be captured by Thomas Merton’s broad stroke of a pen:

“Knowing at the same time the weakness and imperfection of my own soul fettered by attachments, I will above all pray earnestly and humbly for the grace without which I can never hope to conquer my impatience, irritability, aggressiveness and self-righteous impulses to judge and punish other men.”[ii]

I have not lost these negative traits since reading his book, though I like to believe, I have arrested and entangled their freedom to run rampant without circumspection, constraint, or outright arrest!  And what about all the resentments of others past – and those current, that show no restraint or awareness at all of the harms they are committing?

How am I to cope with my own fallibility while also contending with historical “trauma and fear,” current stressors and insecurity, and outright insanity of other people?

Mercy

It is not just the old man Micah that recommends Mercy.   The Bible has many references to a Merciful God.[iii]  Understanding the importance of mercy and forgiveness is a lifelong journey and can cover quite a broad terrain of concrete action.[iv]    If you prefer a psychological look at Mercy and Forgiveness perhaps “The Enright Process Model of Psychological Forgiveness” can shed some light on the power of Mercy or at least the how to approach Mercy for self and others.[v]  Or checkout the International Forgiveness Institute[vi].

I prefer for this writing to stay focused on the spiritual calling to practice Mercy in all our affairs.

“We do not have a God Who is incapable of understanding and sharing our weaknesses. Quite the contrary! Precisely because of His mercy God became one of us: ‘For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin’. In Jesus, therefore, we are able not only to touch the mercy of God with our hands, but we are inspired to become instruments of His mercy. It is easy to speak of mercy, yet more difficult to become its witness. This is a path that is lifelong and which should not be interrupted. Jesus has said to us that we must be ‘merciful as the Father”. It is a lifelong endeavour.”

Pope Francis:  Vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, April 2, 2016[vii]

And thankfully we are not alone in seeking and providing Mercy:

It is love which takes the first step, which does not depend on human merit but on immense gratuitousness. It is divine solicitude that nothing can impede, not even sin, because it is able to go beyond sin, to overcome evil and forgive it.[viii]

The Holy Spirit

Practicing Mercy while being just, demonstrating kindness, and maintaining humility is a way of life that is difficult to maintain in today’s world.  While there are many psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits to living this way that is not why we should live this way.

We should live this way as it is God’s will and to live in accordance with God’s will is right and just.  But how do I know what is God’s will?   You cannot trust your own sense of providence alone.  Too many people are deceived by false shadows of religiosity that are far from holy.

If you are Catholic perhaps some reflection on the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.[ix]  Depending on the immensity of the decision you are facing – having others (spiritual advisors, friends, professionals) maybe a good adjunct to your spiritual journey and practicing discernment.

I would be remiss to not mention Saint Faustina Kowalska, an uneducated Polish nun who, in obedience to her spiritual director, wrote a diary of about 600 pages recording the revelations she received about God’s mercy.[x]       I have a preference for non-formulaic prayer and conversation – meditative and/or Lectio Divina.    Sometimes the readings of Saints or theologians can spark the spiritual imagination.

Perhaps the best advice I have is pray, strive, and do not take yourself too seriously if you are putting your best self out there.  We are imperfect creatures.  Trust in something higher!

Jesus I Trust In You

[i] Hallelujah ANYWAY by Anne Lamott

[ii] [i] Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation (Action and Union)

[iii] 2 Samuel 24:14, Psalm 86:5, Psalm 145:9, Luke 6:36, Ephesians 2:4, Titus 3:5, Hebrews 4:16, 1 Peter 1:3, Matt 9:13, Psalms 51:1-2

[iv] http://www.stamadison.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Fr-Zyg-handout.pdf

[v] https://couragerc.org/wp-content/uploads/Enright_Process_Forgiveness_1.pdf

[vi] https://internationalforgiveness.com/about-us.htm

[vii] https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/francis-chronicles/popes-quotes-mercy-god

[viii] https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/audiences/2016/documents/papa-francesco_20160113_udienza-generale.html

[ix] http://www.stpatpv.org/rcia/gifts_of_the_spirit.pdf

[x] http://www.thedivinemercy.org/message/

 

Is your God Dead by George Yancy[i]

“Open your eyes and look within. Are you satisfied

with the life you’re living?”[ii]

On June 19, 2017 George Yancy challenged you via New York Times opinion piece to consider is your God Dead?

What does it mean to believe in a “Living God?”  My belief is in a living God.  However, I cannot attest to having seen him in person, to have heard his voice, or felt his touch.  My God is not available to me with the realm of the five senses.  I have experienced my God with a subjective sixth sense, a spirituality that relies on intuition, faith, and the grace of God.  My belief, however, is useless to the seeker of God who has no access to the presence of God within him.

We do have traditions, manuscripts, and archaeological evidence for much of the scriptural text that have been preserved and passed down to us.    Still that is a dead letter as well without something more.

Dead letter dept.

Yancy argues that your God, or at least the God of many is dead.   The evidence is all around us as we collectively accept the poverty and inhumanity of the Human condition.  He makes his point very personal.  Raises it on an individual level as to what do you represent as the living word of your God.  In the end, belief without action is not belief at all.   He quoted Friedrich Nietzsche’s observation:

“There was only one Christian and he died on the cross.”

A very pessimistic view indeed amidst all the suffering and chaos we see today.  That being said, our biblical ancestors were not free of terrible suffering, oppression, and sin either.  Our religion has evolved and progresses with our progression as a human species.

We are at a turning point in America that is stunning.  We profess outwardly belief, but when pressed our convictions can be witheringly weak, our actions hypocritical, and our proximity to a conscious understanding and unity with God shattered.    Yet many will wear their affiliation on their sleeve.  Affiliation and baptism alone will not alleviate our guilt. What guilt?  You go to church.  You pay your taxes.  You voted pro-life.  You even gave to charity! You pray often.  Perhaps this is not enough:

After all, prayer and rejoicing can also function as forms of narcissism, as ways to drown out the screams of the poor, the oppressed.

It is not enough if we walk by our neighbor in distress, if we support global poverty and oppression, if we stand idly by as our democracy turns its back on both local and global responsibilities. This can and should be a nightmare for us as Christians and other faiths as well:

“The prophet’s word is a scream in the night.” I wait to be awakened by that scream. I have not yet heard it. It is that scream, that deep existential lament, that will awaken us to the ways we are guilty of claiming to “love God” while forgetting the poor, refusing the refugee, building walls, banning the stranger, and praying and worshiping in insular and segregated “sacred” spaces filled with racism, sexism, patriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia and indifference.”

If we are at all spiritual, the prophet’s words must be ringing in our souls during quiet contemplation.  Perhaps it is a simple as a Marley song, open our eyes, look within, and examine if we are satisfied with the life we are living?

Yancy concludes the article with the following quote:

“I await the day, perhaps soon, when those who believe in the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob” will lock arms and march on Washington, refusing to live any longer under the weight of so much inhumanity.” 

 god of

If your God is not dead, reveal him to others in your actions and words.  Keep your prayers to yourself – but let the light of your God shine brightly in compassion and love of all people.

[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/19/opinion/is-your-god-dead.html?action=click&contentCollection=Middle%20East&module=Trending&version=Full&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nv584jRwh0s

 

An Incomplete Unified Theory of the Universe? 

Stephen Hawkins, Thomas Merton, the Grand Canyon, and Ballet bought to me what Science could not deliver alone – A unified theory of existence.   One week in Phoenix provided me with ample time to watch many ballet dancers, see the Grand Canyon south rim (one day), read Hawkins and Merton, and reflect on the meaning of life.

Reflections:

Perhaps the greatest destroyer of faith is science?  No, science by itself is a testament to the order of things – or disorder of things through the application of human ingenuity and genius to all things requiring study and testing.  The meaning of its findings – the application of science is the greatest destroyer of faith.

Religious institutions, political figures, scientist, philosophers, and human beings of all trades have tried to integrate spiritual and scientific evolution since the dawning of time. The human footprint on explaining knowledge (spiritual, philosophical, or scientific) sadly has been corrupted time and time again by savvy soothsayers – some meaning well and some not so well – claiming superior intellect or position with every new revelation.

The study of metaphysics by philosophers used to couple both science and language. Theology also utilized science and language as well to reveal ancient truths and current religious beliefs.

Today, science evolution is beyond the expertise of the philosopher or the theist.  The degree of speciality on every nook of our universe and the changing theories on everything from genetic discoveries to the Big Bang theory and the origin of the universe is beyond the scope of the professional philosopher and theist – never mind layman.

Science:

In Stephen Hawkins classic book, A Brief History of Time, one can have a pretty good glimpse at both the genius of scientist and the incredible leap of imagination they must use to reach theoretical rules of the universe.  Reading Stephen’s review of gravitational forces, electromagnetic forces, and nuclear forces as they relate to the origins of the universe is mind-boggling.

The dynamic tension between the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics is awesome.  It is clear our greatest minds have a depth of knowledge of infinite magnitude relative to the layperson, yet in scope of the universe their collective knowledge fits metaphorically on a quark, the smallest molecular structures they have identified.  Scientist, by ascribing human nomenclature to pre-existing mass within our world, claim ownership of something they did not create.  By naming discoveries that they find, they provide a sense of security and order to a chaotic world.  Stephen’s book is an excellent example of science grappling with the origins of time and theories about our universe.  Three things that leapt out from his writing for me were the following points:

1) The insignificance of our planet relative to the universe is substantial,

2) “We see the universe the way it is because we exist” (the anthropic Principle), and

3) “admit in print when you were wrong.”  (The latter maybe easier for him than for the rest of us as he is not often wrong).

These points speak to our collective lack of humility as a species, our ego-centric view of the universe, and our tendency to hold to our firm beliefs despite presentation of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  The evolution of scientific thought has had many twist and turns and revisions that we excuse as a natural evolution of the scientific method.  Errors are expected and built into the scientific process – as built into its core theoretical constructs.  Many advancements in science are built on creative imagination and human error!  Yet, many are willing to jettison the concept of a “Creator” or a “Godhead” based on scientific revelations. 

Stephen addresses in one chapter three Arrows of time:  Thermodynamic, Psychological, and Cosmological.  He states all three are going in the same direction.  They represent increasing disorder, human memory of the past, and the expanding universe.  Within these paradigms he speaks to religious types response to evolving evolution.  Perhaps a better and more integrating model might include the fourth arrow of time:  the evolution of human spirituality?

Stephen could not provide a unified theory of the universe.  One of our greatest minds leaves us with more questions when it comes to the basic existence of the universe.  His book projected possible ideas.  He even quipped about there being perhaps a “cosmic censorship hypothesis” where “God abhors a naked singularity.”  Meaning the secrets of the universe are hidden in things like black holes.  We cannot seem to find knowledge on what happened before the “big bang” or what would happen after a massive contraction of our universe into a black hole (which would mean our extinction as we know it).

black-hole

Science is amazing and deserves much more respect than what we apply to it these days. At the same time, science should be applied in a manner that is consistent with our philosophical and moral beliefs (theological?).  In essence Science should serve the greater good of humankind and being based on units of “mass” that we did not create – respect the substance of what we are working with in every endeavor.  How should science be serving us?  Can science guide our moral and social mores?

Science cannot answer all:

“Even in the purely natural order, a certain amount of purity of heart is required before an intellect can get sufficiently detached and clear to work out the problems of metaphysics.  I say a certain amount, however, because I am sure that no one needs to be a saint to be a clever metaphysician.  I dare say there are plenty of metaphysicians in hell.” (Page 104 Merton reference)   

Spirituality:

The order and chaos of the universe, scientific advancements, and all the theoretical models of great thinkers do not prove or disprove God.  You are left with your own intuitive senses – your sixth sense, malnourished and under-utilized in today’s frenetic Information Age.  Your sixth sense requires contemplation and the ability to integrate and seek out the meaning of life, utilizing all the scientific and theological advancements at your disposal within an Arc of an Arrow’s flight that matches your fundamental beliefs as a human being.

Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Story Mountain” weaves a path of disbelief to spiritual conversion (Catholicism) in its deepest and most contemplative mystical form.  He is no lightweight in the world of christian spirituality. His writing, thus far, builds on my experience with other great spiritual writers. Spirituality is a lived experience, an unfathomable search and inquiry into the unseen depths of the human spirit.  Some Catholic references are reserved when handling Merton’s material due to his contact and experience with Buddhism.  I look forward to exploring Merton further and there are Thomas Merton Societies worldwide interested in his contemplative spirituality and exhaustive writings.

My measure of spirituality is action and results.  It’s only proof of application is the ability of its practitioners to achieve holy actions and to attract followers by natural magnetism devoid of any coercion, psychological manipulation, linguistic somersaults, or intellectual trickery.

“A soul is an immaterial thing.   It is a principle of activity, it is an “act,” a “form,” an energizing principle.” (Pg 109)

Reading Merton, my experience is deepened that there exist an ability to live in God’s presence, a conscious presence available to you, by willingly sifting through “almost” incomprehensible meta data, sorting the useful knowledge from the useless knowledge, and then applying it judiciously.

I am not blessed with the faith of others whose belief on the outside appears unfaltering and forever constant.  I have not had burning revelations, visions, or thundering voices. I have had moments of grace, unexplained coincidences, and direct prayers answered – not on my timeline, but answered nonetheless.

And as for suffering, suffering has remained in many areas of my life in the past and today.  Our collective suffering today is unbearable for me to contemplate and sit with for any significant amount of contemplation without deep despair overcoming me.  And yet I believe.

My subjective experience cannot prove this to you as Stephen’s metaphysical scientific theoretical constructs cannot nail down the origin of the universe.  It is a Kantian nightmare, an unsolvable dilemma.  The more we know, the less we know, the more questions we have nonetheless.

Like science, theologians have their own language and application of history to paint a picture of God.  Whatever religion or theologian you encounter, aside from historical human events and historical archeological finds, at the end of the day they are left with spiritual imagination and some would say divine inspiration to define and share their understanding of God.  The intersection with science is that great theologians at the end of the day are left with great questions and mysteries as well.

Looking into the Grand Canyon on this trip I was awed at the immensity of the lifeless canyons and depth below my feet.   Science attempts to explain the Grand Canyon and date the rock layers.  Artists paint it.  Story-tellers bring it to life.  Yet, nothing is like standing on the edge and looking out into the canyon.


We hold our positions as Atheist, Buddhist, Christians, Muslims with vehemence despite our hold on absolute truth being narrower than Science, and Science, despite having great gains, at the end of the day is always left with theoretical metaphysics similar to existential philosophy.   I am Catholic.  I believe in judicial use of Science.  I believe my knowledge of science and of the “ultimate” being is wholly inadequate!

What does this mean for me?

“This means, in practice, that there is only one vocation. Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to a deep interior life perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others.”

The evolution of human spirituality is ongoing.  Today wars are being fought literally and metaphorically in the name of God.  These are man-made, not God-made.  These are of this world, not of the spiritual world.  They are for power, revenge, justice, anger, pride, and many other distorted human needs.

They are not fueled by divinely inspired spiritual imagination, harnessed by serious contemplative prayer, tested by collective human experience, and distilled for authenticity, overtime, stripped of human inserted fallacy.

Ballet:

The Regional Dance Alliance had two thousand aspiring dancers at the Phoenix convention center taking technical classes during the day and performing each night for 6 consecutive days.  I was given the gift of being a parent chaperone.

Ballet demonstrated that soul is “a principle of activity, it is an “act,” a “form,” an energizing principle.”  

Ballet takes the human spirit and expresses it with music and body movement that defies the eye.  The Ballerina is always approaching perfection, and in her imperfection reaches as closely to the heavens as humans can reach.

As I watched these adolescents work out human relationships at the height of performance anxiety or in the tediousness of dance repetitions, the verb of the soul leaped out.  They replicate human experience without words.  Their entire being is given to the art form.  Their collective creates an energy that exceeds the individual contributions.  The successful companies are soul-filled on and off the Marley floor.   At the end of their performance they have given away everything in a moment of time to the audience.  It is no longer their work.  It has either moved the audience or not.  There is relief, but only momentarily, as ballet is a verb, and next performance is already being prepared to build on the experience of the last and the work of countless practices to come.  Permeating all is love of dance.

The Ballet teacher was walking the floor, observing, pointing, correcting, and vocalizing to the dancers, she paused, and yelled out to all:

“Head Reach the Ceiling and Feet Reach the Floor.”


As she demonstrated, it was clear, dancers must remain grounded and yet seek elevation to the heavens.  They are at once respecting gravity and seeking to elevate themselves and the audience.  Everything in between must be attuned to as well – and that requires both muscle memory and contemplation.

The Spiritual Imagination and Science provide us the ceiling to strive for and the floor to ground us.  They are not mutually exclusive and one without the other is folly.  What happens in the middle is Dance.  The Dance of life with all its joy and pain.

In one week, science, spirituality and dance merged for me into a unified theory of the universe in one moment of time.  With the speed of light it has already changed within me and is no longer the same – but nor am I.