From Belief Systems To Relief Systems

The mind searches for superlatives when one stands on China’s Great Wall. Some of its sections were constructed two millennia ago. The wall we know today–all 4,000 miles of it–was completed before the colonists came to America. More than 3 million prisoners and peasants built it, and a million died doing so. The bricks reportedly could withstand 1,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. Most of all, this “long fort,” as the Chinese call it, snakes its way up and down the mountainous landscape, on and on, on and on, in a way that leaves one feeling linguistically embarrassed. “Amazing!” “Wow!” “Magnificent!” Words just don’t do it.

Yet, the thought that hit me as I stood there a couple of weeks ago was of a different order. All this, I thought, all the expense, all the labor and sacrifice, all the visions, all the grandeur–and it did not work.

When I passed that thought on to a fellow hiker, she looked at me puzzled, maybe even irritated. I had spoiled a transcendent moment with nonsense. Or at least with practical talk.

But history says I was right.

Genghis Khan reputedly said the wall was only as strong as its defenders were courageous. And he too was right. The wall might hold enemies back for a time, but not forever. Some of those northern “barbarians” breached the barrier; others bribed the guards; but always, in every age, they came across it. And if their attacks failed to bring down a regime, the expense of constructing it usually did.

The tragedy is that things did not have to be that way. There were more effective ways to defend China from the dreaded “barbarians.”

The great Muslim eunuch Zheng-he of the early 1400s showed one such way. He served the very Ming dynasty that spent such vast sums on the wall, but his approach was different. He put together massive naval fleets of more than 200 ships and 25,000 men, then went calling on peoples around the world. He traveled not to exclude, but to learn about lands as far away as Tasmania, Persia, and southern Africa, and to tell distant peoples about China. So doing, he made friends and admirers rather than enemies.

Even earlier, in the seventh century, Japan’s  Prince Shōtoku, showed still another approach to outside threats. Learning about China’s powerful and expansive Tang empire, he created no army; he built no walls; he made no effort to protect his regime. Rather, he sent representatives to learn about that great empire to his west, carrying the salutation: “From the emperor of the land where the sun rises, to the emperor of the land where the sun sets.”

When China’s ruler took offense at that greeting (the sun set and rose in China, after all), Shōtoku revised it, and when his representatives came back with reports of what they had learned about Chinese life, he used their information to build a better Japan. The result was a cosmopolitan age in which Japan reached brilliant heights culturally and politically.

Isn’t it always like that, I thought as I mulled the imposing wall–on the personal as much as the national level. We spend so many resources, so much energy, walling out enemies. Fortresses make us feel safer. Or at least we think they do.

But they delude us. They make us enemy-conscious. They wall us in better than they keep our enemies out. They make our worlds small. They keep us from getting to know people we fear, from finding out why they do not like us (if, indeed, they don’t), from learning all the rich things the enemies may have to teach us.

Indeed, the walls keep us from finding out whether that enemy might actually be a potential friend–or even the guru-in-disguise whom Bob Thompson recently described, the one who, to our surprise, “dispels darkness by giving light.”

Walls, spiritual or material, look magnificent; they may make us feel secure. But they shrivel our souls, they separate; they nurture spite; and they seldom keep anyone out. They are, at core, a mightily expensive delusion.

Chris and I attended a Eucharist in Bisbee, AZ where he lives. It was held at St. John’s Episcopal Church and it was one of those occasions when the liturgy actually was a gathering of the people of God to give thanks to God. Sometimes we forget that the word eucharist means thanksgiving, and we forget, at least in my tradition, that the purpose of our gathering is just that– to give thanks. This was a simple gathering. Folks came in whatever clothes they were in. Some were families, some with children; some were elders, some single, some coupled; some were living in a shelter, some maybe on the streets or shacking up with friends. (There was at least one mother and her adult son.) Some were settled residents, some had just returned to Bisbee after years away, some were hoping for a more settled life, others perhaps were passing through. The church isn’t big, but the priest, Seth, had set a small table down in the area where the pews are, and on it he’d prepared for the meal. He sat beside it to lead the worship. No vestments, just his stole over his neck. His wife played the keyboard in the back for the couple of hymns we sang.

When it came time for the sermon, Seth stood and said there would be no sermon. Instead we would just offer our thanks as we felt moved. He began by thanking God for his wife and child, gifts he said he more and more deeply appreciated with each passing day. And then he sat down and there was silence. People spoke with silence in between their speaking—a respectful silence. They spoke simply without fancy words, no prayers of thanksgiving read from a prayer book (even though we Episcopalians tend in that direction—the reading of beautiful language being one of the things many of us cherish). One man gave thanks that now he was doing work that made a difference in the world, that helped in the healing of the world. He hadn’t always done this kind of work, but he said he felt like if he were to die today he would do so at peace, knowing that now he was doing work worth doing. Another young man got up from the floor where he’d been sitting to say that he was thankful for a friend who knew about epilepsy and took care of him when he suffered his seizures. A woman gave thanks for friends and their support during a hard transition—a time of loss in her life. A man stood and expressed his thanks for his return to Bisbee, and for the willingness of his wife to return with him! A young father stood to give thanks for his wife and child—for the gift of loving family. A man gave thanks that he and his partner had been welcomed and nourished in the church community—and then he gave thanks for dogs—his own in particular, but all dogs. The gift of dogs. A man with long hair stood to say he was grateful for a community that welcomed people who didn’t fit—people like himself who weren’t “your average type.”

The thanksgivings were real. Honest. Behind them were pain, loss, suffering of various kinds. But also the deep felt gratitude for a sense of place and for connection. Relationship, hospitality, love: divine gifts. People were vulnerable. The silence between thanksgivings was honoring—and it allowed each of us to know our unity with the others in their thanks. There was a humility. Not the woe-is-me-wretched-worm-that-I-am kind of humility, but rather the simple recognition that we depend on others and on God. We don’t make our lives happen. We are not self-sufficient, we are the recipients of grace, of gifts. To give thanks is our response.

After we had greeted one another in the peace of God, the time came for the communion service—the blessing and sharing of the bread and wine. Seth simply used his own words to sum up our offering of thanks, to tell the story of Jesus’ last supper with his friends, and to bless the bread and wine, and invite us to share in it. He offered a final prayer of thanksgiving and we sang “God is so Good.” That was the inside the church worship. The gathering of the community to give thanks though continued next door in the parish hall, where hundreds of folks (all kinds of folks) gathered for a free traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Just a few nights later in Santa Rosa, CA I sat beside my daughter-in-law and good friend, Kelin, along with nearly 1600 others in a darkened theater to hear Mary Oliver read her poems. This was very different from the little Thanksgiving Day gathering. Clearly it wasn’t a church service—far from it; for one thing, there were a lot more people in attendance; they were by and large dressed more elegantly; there was no sharing of bread, (although there was wine of course just beforehand—this is Sonoma County) Mostly only one person did all the speaking. And although she did make remarks between poems, most of her speaking was reading words in books. Beautiful words carefully crafted—words she had written over the years for publication. Poetry.

But, as I sat there I was carried back to the little gathering in the church. There was considerable silence this night, too—between poems, as the poet searched for the next one she would read. And there wasn’t much applause—except at the beginning and the end—when people stood and clapped and whistled and expressed their heartfelt thanks for Mary Oliver. Occasionally there was applause after a poem, but the first applause of that kind came in response to a poem about her dog Percy and a mythical visit he paid to George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. That clapping exploded I think out of the pure joy of laughter (and perhaps the gift of dogs).

Mostly at the end of each poem, there was a soft a-h-h-h sound from the audience—kind of a murmur. Once on another evening sometime back, when a man named Doug von Koss, who is a magnificent bard here in the Bay area, led an evening of the poetry of Rumi and St. Francis, he began the evening by asking for no applause. He said, when you feel like applauding, instead sigh. He meant a sigh of contentment, of agreement, of thanksgiving, of homecoming. The way you sigh when something rings true, something is so beautiful it opens your heart. An a-h-h-h-h-h-h of recognition and thanksgiving. That evening was filled with sighs, and those sighs contributed to the beauty and the community—we who sighed were made one with the performers and the poetry. Sweet.

Mary Oliver gave no instructions about applause or sighs—but the evening was filled with the rhythm of the spoken word, the sighs, and the silence. Not unlike the rhythm of the people offering their thanks and the silences between them. And although her words were carefully written and spoken ones, they were like the words spoken in the church a few days earlier, in their honesty and truth. They, too, were filled with losses and longings, death and grief, vulnerability and strength, love and mystery—and praise and thanksgiving. Place and relationship. Connection to the earth and the creatures of the earth. Love between partners. Attentiveness: being present to life. Humility. Vulnerability. These were the marks of her poetry. She mentioned Jesus once or twice, she talked about God once or twice—but mostly she used the prism of her own life to open us to pure gift and beauty. In a sense she showed us how thanksgiving for the gift of life is best expressed by living life fully and deeply.

Our murmured sighs in response were expressions of our thanks for her remembering all of this for us. Reminding us. Speaking out loud the truths we share. And, opening us.  That’s what thanksgiving does. It reminds us who we are, and opens us to the divine in our own selves, others, and beyond. It dispels fear, opens our hands letting us unclutch. Making us ready to receive. A good Advent practice: thanksgiving.

Holy time and place and people at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts.

There’s no better time than in the season of Thanksgiving to ask the unanswerable question, “What is life?”  Upon this question, philosophers have philosophized and pontificators have pontificated.

In my adolescence the question was often posed as a funny conundrum. What is life?  Back came the answer, “It’s a magazine.”  That seemed like a funny and amusing thing to say at the time.  But in a peculiar way, with the proliferation of the media, the internet, the images and advertising, it is as if life appears as a magazine—everywhere life appears as a collection of miscellaneous stories—sometimes illustrated, sometimes with pictures—consisting of short segments on a variety of topics.

Life is a magazine.

In his book Who Dies, Stephen Levine puts it like this.  “At home in our favorite easy chair, we read in the newspaper of five dying in a hotel fire in Cleveland, of ten killed in a bus accident on the freeway.  Of three thousand crushed in an earthquake in Italy.  Of the death of Nobel laureates in their laboratories.  And of murderers in the electric chair.  We partake of the ‘survivors news,’ reinforcing the idea that everyone dies but me.”  Sitting there, reading of the death of others, reassures us of our survivorship, of our immortality.  The misfortune of others makes up a large percentage of the front  page, creating the illusion of our good fortune.  Seldom do we use the news of another’s death as a reminder of the impermanence of all things.”

Real life is not a magazine but the analogy does not fail.

On and on and on everything comes and goes.

There is only one law in the physical universe that never changes, all things are temporary.   Everything we experience with our five senses is in transition. If you see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, or touch it, it will be gone before you know it—every experience has a beginning, middle and an end.

We have all had great experiences after which we thought, “if only that feeling would stay with me forever!”  But it never does.  We know in our heads that this is true, yet much of the time we pass through our lives as if we are in a trance.

The season of thanksgiving calls us to wake up.

Take nothing for granted.  Wake up to this moment.

Perhaps a moment has come to you while sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table.  For a moment, hands and hearts join—you see the faces and look into the eyes of loved ones.  You give thanks for each other, for that moment and for the feast of food.  And perhaps in those fleeting moments you open up to the many gifts of love that have nourished you on your journey.

People tell me they love Thanksgiving because there are no other expectations than to luxuriate in their longing for belonging—and for a few moments, there at that table, that longing is satisfied.

It is said that soon after his enlightenment, the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the extraordinary radiance and peacefulness of his presence.  The man stopped and asked, “My friend, are you a celestial being or a god?”  “No,” answered the Buddha. “Well then are you some kind of a magician or wizard?”  Again the Buddha answered, “No.”  “Are you a mere human being?”  “No.”  “Well then, please tell, what then are you?”  And the Buddha answered, “I am awake.”

Speaking of what it means to be awake, Jesus says: “What will it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your soul?”  Or to put it another way: “What good is it if you pass through your life without really living in it? What good is everyday life if you are living everyday in a trance?”

Perhaps waking up is as simple and as difficult as seeing life as it really is—not as we think it should be, want it to be or hope it will be but as it really is.

Many years ago, I sat with my family around the Thanksgiving table for what turned out to be my mother’s final Thanksgiving meal.  Having struggled with cancer for many years, my mother was in her final months.  We all joined hands to utter whatever we were thankful for.  Her eyes moistened as she said, “I am so thankful for every one of you. I love you so much.”

For a moment, we all awoke.

Learning to give thanks even when there seems to be little to be thankful for, is a great gift that has the power to rouse us from the everyday trance.  This is why Meister Eckhart uttered his now famous teaching: “If you pray only one prayer, let it be ‘thank you.’”

This is life. This is it.

Give thanks.

The economic pressures that harass and consume most of us these days are hardly on the same order as those of the billion people (that’s a billion, three times the population of the United States) who have been going hungry every day this past year, with little attention.  But our problems are real. And pervasive. And frightening.

How can I not feel the fear of the friend who is putting off retirement because her savings have plummeted? Or the frustration of a couple who desperately need sell their home, but cannot? Or the despair of the homeless man who told me the other day that he had a fine job just weeks ago–then it lost it, and with it, his medical insurance, just before being hit by a health crisis?

Empathize though I may, however, the question that haunts me all the time is: what to do, how to respond when troubles like these–big troubles of any kind–overwhelm us.

John Blegen found a graceful, heartening answer in his October essay for this blog–in baseball, something I understand well as a lifelong Cubs fan. (Pointless diversion: his reflections took me back to a Sunday afternoon a decade ago when I met Mel Hall, a former Cub, getting ready to take the subway–yes, John, the subway–home from a Chiba Marines game in Tokyo.)

Bob Thompson provided a powerful answer in his blog entry a week earlier–in the Buddhist-Daoist-Christian emphasis on “going with the flow,” learning that the “last thing that has happened” to me is “only the last thing–there’s always more to the story.”

Still another, but not so very different, answer is suggested to me when I recall a moment years ago in Springfield, Ohio, when I sat whimpering, feeling sorry for myself as I waited for a long traffic light to turn. There had been struggles with the children, as I recall. Finances made my stomach churn. Judith, my wife, was fighting cancer. And now I had received one of those depressing letters, telling me there had been so many “outstanding applications”; I should not take it personally that mine had not been successful.

It is amazing what pushes one over the top. Cancer? Family struggles? Deep debts? No . . . the failure to win a petty grant.

Self-pity erupted as I sat there, waiting for that endless light. “Why, God?! I try to live right. I try to love. I do my best. And all I get is failure and rejection.”

Then, in one of those rare, quietly luminous moments (and to my huge surprise, since I wanted pity more than solutions) an answer came. And it changed my life.

“You’ve received the greatest gift,” some presence seemed to whisper. “You have the ability to be content, to be happy, no matter the circumstance. What more could you want?”

Then the light changed. And I drove on.

The moment did not take away all of my emotional fluctuations. Only this morning, I was reminded by one of my closest friends, a Buddhist psychologist on dialysis as he waits for a new kidney, just how much sickness, tiredness, and financial strain can compromise one’s ability to be serene.

“Yes,” he said, “I have to be vigilant about my mind.”

The dark times since that long stoplight sometimes have been darker than dark (though never as grim, nor as endless, as for those millions without food). They’ve staggered me sometimes. But they’ve not conquered.

The still small voice remains. I do not understand it; nor can I account for it. There is something deeper, something more real, something more lasting than the storms. It is inner, not outer. It cannot be taken from me.

Nearly 135 years ago, Mark Twain said, “October is a particularly dangerous month to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August and February.”

The tenuous nature of speculation in the stock market is perhaps a metaphor for the tenuous nature of life itself.   From unanticipated joy to unexpected pain, from temporary calm to inexplicable chaos—the markets imitate life.

The dismal news of recent weeks is vaguely reminiscent of the days surrounding 9/11.  Remember? The airlines stopped flying, the stock market crashed, for a few days, life came to a halt.

Although the financial crisis of 2008 is not as unnerving as the experience of 9/11 we keep hearing financial news that heightens anxiety and dampens the spirit.  In these uncertain times it is clear that Yogi Berra was right: The future isn’t what it used to be.

Few would deny that recent events have triggered a palpable fear, fear, anxiety—even dread.

We find ourselves in an apocalyptic moment.

Apocalyptic moments have interrupted the lives of human beings as long as human beings have been around.  These moments come in a variety of forms but the result is always the same—the end of one reality is the birth of another.

The art of spirituality is to, as the cliché says, go with the flow. But this is easier said than done.

To “go with the flow” is an idea that has its roots in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism. Here’s the rub.  One cannot go with the flow unless one is willing to detach from the external circumstances of life.

For many people, especially in the West, equate detachment with being aloof or not caring about people.

This is not the meaning of spiritual detachment.

Most of us enjoy a good movie.  We enter the theater and sit down with our popcorn and coke and hope to be transported to another world, for a couple of hours, anyway.   If the movie is really good, we laugh, we cry, we feel fear and joy.  Sometimes the heart beats fast. Sometimes we sigh.  But when the movie ends we read the credits, get up and go on.

Spirituality is the art of being able to view the comedies and dramas of our lives the way we watch a movie.

The art of detachment is expressed nowhere better than in the story told by the ancient Taoist master, Hui Nan Tzu.

Here is the story he told.

A poor farmer’s horse ran off into the country of the barbarians.  When all his neighbors gathered to offer their condolences, the farmer said, “How do you know that this isn’t good fortune?”

After a few months the horse returned with a barbarian horse of excellent stock.  All his neighbors offered their congratulations, but the farmer said, “How do you know this isn’t a disaster?”

The two horses bred , and the farmer became rich in fine horses.  The farmer’s son spent much of his time riding them.  One day the farmer’s son fell off  the horse and broke his hip.  Again, all his neighbors offered the father their condolences, but the farmer answered, “How do you know that this isn’t good fortune?

Another year passed and the Barbarians invaded the frontier. All the able bodied young men were conscripted, but because of his broken hip, the farmer’s son could not go and fight.  All of the young men were killed in the war—except of course, the farmer’s son.

After telling this story, Hui Nan Chu asks the question, “Who can tell how events will be transformed?”

Nothing that happens to us is the last thing to happen to us.  Learning to go with the flow, being carried by the Tao occurs when we detach ourselves from the idea that the last thing that has happened is the most important thing. But the last thing is only the last thing—there’s always more to the story.  There is always more to the story.

The art of spirituality is seeing that life is one drama after another. 

We are all actors in a bigger story than that of our own little dramas.  To understand this is to be liberated from being controlled by external circumstances.

The art of spirituality is learning how to bend without breaking.

The art of spirituality is learning how to play our own transient part in the inimitable eternal story of life.

In Thornton Wilder’s classic play,  Our Town, one of the characters says, “There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”  When we awaken to this way down deep of the eternal within us, we let go of our attachments to the external and open to a deeper truth.  In each and every one of us there is a wholeness that’s hidden beneath the surface circumstances of our lives.

When we touch this truth we are able to say,  no matter what is happening in the world around me—I know that all is well with my soul.

Spirituality is the process by which we touch this hidden wholeness.

What matters is not what happens to us, but our ability to touch this hidden wholeness.

Have you ever touched it?

Preachers preaching sermons on sin is the moral equivalent to politicians giving speeches on patriotism.  Both are expected and predictable, not to mention mind numbing.

There is the story of a country preacher whose topic was getting sin out of our systems.  He concluded by making a point about the evils of alcohol. With great expression he said, “If I had all the beer in the world, I’d take it and throw it into the river.” With even greater emphasis, he said, “And if I had all the wine in the world, I’d take it and throw it into the river.” And then, finally, he said, “And if I had all the whiskey in the world, I’d take it and throw it into the river.” He sat down.    The song leader then stood very cautiously and announced with a pleasant smile, “For our closing song, let us sing Hymn #365: ‘Shall We Gather At the River.'”

Soon and very soon, Congress will ratify a bailout bill to avert an even darker night of the economy’s soul.

Since I am a preacher and not a finance guy, the finer points of solving this crisis escape me.  But we are hearing a lot of talk about the sin of greed—and even hints of “throwing away our collective greed,” into the river of life.

This national crisis is not only sobering but fraught with pain and fear.  The size of the bailout is staggering.  But now that we are wringing our hands and promising to throw our greed away—the question is, will we gather again at the river?

You can count on it.

We have this propensity for repeating our sins not only as a people but as individuals. Empirical evidence abounds.

Although slavery was outlawed a century and a half ago, racism still rears its ugly head.  Over the years we have learned that war may be necessary but is never right, yet five years ago we started a war.   And as William Sloane Coffin put it, “We say we’re tough on crime; we’re only tough on criminals. Were we tough on crime we’d put the money up front, in prevention, in building communities, not more prisons.”  We say we are against crime but we aren’t willing to do what it takes to prevent it.

Shall we gather at the river?

Like personal sin, our national shortcomings are recidivistic.

From whence does our turmoil and trouble come?

Conventional Christianity offers a simple and straightforward answer.  The world is full of problems, injustices, conflict and suffering because there is evil in the world.  The evil in the world seeps into us, imprinting itself on our very souls.  We can’t do anything to change this, it’s something we’re born with.

Original sin is responsible for the mess we’re in.  Case closed.

But in the 14th century, the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich opens up the question of original sin.  Julian lived out the majority of her adult life in a cell, which was built up against the wall of a church.  Through a tiny window into the sanctuary, she could watch and listen to the church services. She could leave once a day for a walk in a courtyard.  But most of her time was spent in prayer, in meditation, in complete openness to receive whatever God would give her.

In May of 1373 Julian received her revelations.  During her mystical experience she asked God a direct question: If you are all knowing, then why don’t you know enough to prevent sin and suffering?  She receives the answer, “that sin is necessary.”  She was also told not to worry, for everything will work out. The world may appear to be in chaos now, but this disarray is necessary. Everything will work out.

But Julian was not satisfied with this answer.  So she conversed at length with God on the topic of sin.  Sometimes God spoke directly to her. Other times Julian simply understood in her heart.
In her vision she was told that we fall into sin not because we are wicked or corrupt, but because we are naive and ignorant.  Furthermore she is taught that the purpose of sin is not guilt or punishment but to teach us lessons that will move us beyond where we are in the current moment.

If we refuse to learn the lessons, we only hurt ourselves and increase our suffering.  God does not punish us for our sin, but when we miss the mark of love, we end up punishing ourselves. We reap what we sow.

In other words, we sin, not because we are corrupt, but because we don’t know what we are doing.  If someone is mean spirited, the meanness is a result of ignorance. They don’t know what they’re doing.  If someone is malicious the hatefulness is the result of not knowing any better.  If someone is apathetic, the indifference is a result of not knowing how to be connected and engaged to the matrix of life. Every failure in relationship to God, every failure among and between us, is a result of being ignorant as to the ways of love.  When we don’t know how to live together it’s only because we don’t know how to love each other.

Every dastardly deed, every abusive action, every greedy, self absorbed thought word or deed is a result of our ignorance.  Whether it is a terrorist hijacking or simply a mundane act of daily insensitivity—it always stems from an ignorance as to how to love.

Love is not an emotion.  True love is the awareness of how we are innately and irrevocably connected.  Love is the awareness of our connection.

There is no list of sins, and God does not punish us. We punish ourselves by our own failure to love.  The more we love, the more love there is in our lives.  The more we drift from love the more we miss the mark.  There is only one sin, and that is the failure to love.

So when it comes to our national sins, the latest manifestation being the rampant greed that requires a bailout—let’s hope that this bailout actually awakens in our collective conscience the truth spoken by Martin Luther King Jr: “We are all interdependent and interrelated.  What effects one of us directly effects all indirectly.”

This wisdom is the only remedy I know to our propensity to sin against ourselves and each other. This wisdom is the only real bailout.

As many of you know, I am dedicated to inter-spiritual dialog.  Not only do I study wisdom teachings from all the world’s spiritual traditions, but I shamelessly practice as many of them as I can, davening to welcome the Jewish Sabbath, chanting the holy names at a Hindu ashram, praying in the historic Catholic Church during the sunrise Spanish Mass, praising Allah in an ecstatic Sufi dance – often all in the same week.

Which is why I was so surprised – at first amused, and later saddened – to hear the rumor on the streets of my small community last week: Mirabai is turning into a fundamentalist.

This bizarre notion seems to have come out of a recent experience in which a Chasidic rabbi gave my sister Amy and me Hebrew names.  Because we asked for them.  Here’s what happened.  This summer, a young Chabad rabbi was sent to our traditionally Hispanic Catholic and Native American community to add his particular brand of traditional Judaism to the growing collection of mostly liberal, non-denominational Jewish resources in town.  Our family was invited to participate in a ceremony in which a hand-lettered Torah (Hebrew Bible) scroll was dedicated and then carried under a chuppah (traditional wedding canopy) and danced through the streets, to be installed in its new ark.  Everyone was invited to buy a letter (for $1) in memory of a deceased loved one, because it is considered to be a mitzvah (blessing, as well as commandment) to participate in the writing of a Torah.

Amy and I bought three letters: one for our father; one for our brother Matty, who died of cancer when we were children; and one for my daughter Jenny, who was killed in a car accident seven years ago.  As we were filling out the form, it asked for our parents’ Hebrew names, and we wrote them down.  Then it asked for our Hebrew names, which we were never given.  By the time our parents had children, they had already rejected organized religion, and so did not participate in the traditional Jewish naming ritual.

When I lamented this lack over snacks at the reception, my friend Azima, who was visiting from England and is a translator of the Persian poet Rumi, said, “Why don’t you ask the rabbi for a name?”

“Good idea,” I said.

“When?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know.  One of these days.”

“How about today?” she pressed.  “How about right now?”

And so we did.  The rabbi agreed immediately.  Ours would be the first blessing over the new Torah.  And it would also be the young rabbi’s first naming.

Concerned that it might be difficult to gather a minyan (ten Jewish men) in our small community, the word went out.  The evening of the ceremony (which happened to be the night before Jenny’s birthday, when she would have turned twenty-one), the small storefront shul was packed with people – men and women.  Our family has lived and served in this town for almost forty years.  As soon as people heard that the Starr sisters were being given Hebrew names, they flocked to support us.  It was a very moving ritual, in which my sister’s two teenaged sons were also given Hebrew names.

Moving, yes, and also alien to my secular sensibilities.  The women and men were separated by a partition.  When my I was given my name, I was not there to see it.  Disembodied male voices chanted in Hebrew on my behalf.  And then it was over.  I barely knew that anything had happened.

Yet something in me felt truly changed.  An empty cup inside my heart was filled.  A childhood longing was satisfied.  All in a quiet, and unexpectedly holy way.  It did not bother me that the tradition might be sexist and narrow.  I can easily shift my perspective and view it as ancient and esoteric.  I intentionally suspended my judgment that this twenty-something rabbi who grew up in a very insulated world compares George Bush to a stern but loving father who is willing to risk losing his children’s affection in order to keep them safe, while I am working as hard as I can to get Barack Obama elected so that we may begin to repair some of the horrendous damage our last president has inflicted on this world.  This was not about politics.  It was about embracing the sacred, honoring my heritage, and trying to build another small bridge between faiths and genders and hearts and minds.

I’ve been thinking that the ripple of shock that went through my community may have been partly generated by my transformed appearance that night.  Out of respect for the orthodoxy of that particular tradition, I wore a silk head scarf, which completely concealed my hair, and revealed what struck even me as an intensely Jewish face.  Even my mother didn’t recognize me when she first walked into the temple!

My new Hebrew name is Miriam, sister of Moses, who led her people with drums and tambourines and song through the Narrow Places to the Promised Land.

A few years ago, I was asked to lead a contemplative retreat in the South, using the teachings of the Dark Night of the Soul, by the sixteenth century Christian mystic, John of the Cross, which I had translated from Spanish to English.  I was horrified to discover that my wealthy hosts were not only conservative Christians, but right-wing Republicans.  Over dinner the first night, the husband pontificated about the War on Terror and railed against a pro-choice agenda.  I spent that night thrashing in bed, troubled to my core.  It was going to be a long weekend.

But it didn’t turn out that way.  After a day of sharing the expansive teachings of mystical love, I felt calm and happy.  That evening, we had a beautiful conversation at the dinner table, in which my hosts opened their hearts about the losses in their lives, the children they worried about, the general suffering on this planet.  And the day after that, we went on a boat ride along the bayou, and had a picnic on a little island.  By the time I left, this family felt like family – all differences between us irrelevant.

It won’t take long for my own community to notice that Mirabai is Miriam, yet still Mirabai.  That I am as spiritually promiscuous as always, lying down with any god who will have me.  Because I know it’s all One.  And I’ll take holiness wherever I can find it.

A beautiful friend died just days ago. After five years of living with cancer, she died surrounded by love—family and friends. Ten years ago to the day my brother died. And, so, grief, that well-known companion, has circled back upon me.

Tom Stoppard says of death that it is “the absence of presence, nothing more.” However, my niece Monica, honoring her father, sent me these words about grief attributed to Edna St Vincent Millay, “the presence of that absence is everywhere.” I’ve been living into those words for days now. Pondering them in my heart.

The presence of that absence of someone whose physicality, voice, mannerisms, jokes and stories, laughter, tears perhaps, were a part of our days and our very selves. Almost anything, a place, a name, even a smell can bring a flood of memories and longing. And for me at least, one grief brings up others—raises other losses to consciousness. My dear Kathryn who died only months before Dan—at home too, surrounded by family and friends. The presence of that absence everywhere.

To be an older person is to know loss, is to grieve. And it isn’t just about the past, there is much to grieve in the present: daily reminders come of losses in the here and now: the hearing aid, the root canal, aching knees. Friends die or move away. “Retirement” (no matter what that means) requires a letting go as well as an embracing. But, age has no monopoly on loss and grief. We know that although our wealth and comfort sometimes insinuate otherwise. I read an article the other day describing children who are AIDS orphans in Zambia and their incredibly painful grief—made worse perhaps by the fact that some of the adults caring for them imagined that the children were too young to know what really happened—too young to grieve their losses. Not so. Not so.

We grieve all kinds of losses. The grief I’m living with right now is a measure of love—a measure of connectedness—my relationship to those who’ve died. A measure too of the ways in which we are really constituted by those who love us; I often think of how I have been made new—been made into a different person than I was because of those who have loved me—and even (to be honest) of some who did not particularly love me. Those who have challenged me, changed me, comforted, and discomforted me. The ones who live on in my heart. We are connected. They come to me bidden or unbidden.

The fragility of life—perhaps this is at the heart of grief. I don’t like that about life, in the lives of those I love, and particularly I don’t like it about my own life. The limits. The reality that life can get hard, that we can’t heal every disease, that life ends,. That the good sometimes do die young. I will die. These realities grate against me. I wish it were otherwise.  At least part of me does. Another part of me knows that coming up against the fragility, the pain of loss, and letting go, is where we can find courage, strength, resilience, and the deep passion to live life more fully.

Not always. Some losses seem to be too much to be borne: people end up simply diminished or destroyed. And there is no judging really what and who. When I was in South Africa I met people who came out of prison on Robben Island nearly destroyed and full of vindictiveness, and others full of strength and forgiveness. I don’t know why that is.  I have not suffered such abuse and loss. But, I know that my own rather ordinary times of loss and the losses themselves have transfigured me. Enlightened me in the sense that I see with new eyes. Strengthened me. Compassioned me. Humbled me. And most of all filled me with thanksgiving for the gift of life—fragile as it is. For the gift of others—as absent as they may be. Life is precious. Joy and loss are connected. The fullness of life linked to the emptiness.

The presence of absence is everywhere. I’ve come to understand in some very tentative way that the presence of absence is not only about death of a loved one. My friend’s grieving partner told me that she is determined to live into this great loss in her life—keep her heart open to it. It takes courage to live open to such emptiness and pain. My intuition is that this is as much a spiritual matter as anything else. The divine whom we long for who seems so very present at times and so very absent at others is enmeshed in the presence of absence. In fact I understand “the presence of that absence is everywhere” to pretty much sum up divinity in our midst. To keep your heart open to that absence is to open it to God.

I saw a hint of this recently on a Sunday. I went to a small church where there was a special space for children set up in front of the front pews. A little boy maybe 3 years old occupied himself with scissors and pieces of paper, and a little car, and attended to the readings for a time, and the sermon for a time—going in and out of his other activities. But when the deacon brought the incense to the congregation to cense us, the boy stood up and silently opened his arms wide, in a V above his head—open to receive the incense as it wafted toward us. Then, he tried to catch the incense between his outstretched arms. The presence of absence everywhere. Elusive. Indefinable. Impossible to clutch. Filling our lungs and sometimes smarting our eyes. And then, invisible. Outside us and within us. Intangible.

Grief puts me in touch with my longings. Most essentially for the divine. The mystics talk of the God beyond God. “The other side of nothingness” is how Beverly Lanzetta puts it. Mystical openness comes in vulnerability, in letting go. There is no possessing of God. But, our longings for connection so deeply felt in times of grieving are a part of God’s own longing. Mine very finite. God’s infinite. The emptiness is strangely the place of communion. The presence of that absence, everywhere.

“Naruhodo” is the Japanese word for a personal epiphany, that moment when you understand something in a new way. Life has been full of “naruhodo moments” for me. I muddle along, confused or mentally lethargic, then suddenly–sometimes out of the blue, sometimes prodded by a comment–the light goes on. “Naruhodo!”

One of those moments came forty years ago, in Curtis MacDougall’s editorial writing classroom at Northwestern University, there beside Lake Michigan, a dozen blocks from Lake Street Church (a place of which I’d never heard).

No one maddened me more than Professor MacDougall. He was dogmatically, ostentatiously liberal. He tossed us wild ideas, sneered at conventional ones, made us defend our own. Some days he exhausted me; others he intimidated me. But he never let me stop thinking–and after two quarters, I loved the man.

He was the one who made me understand that in a democracy, government is not “Them” but “Me.” I am the government I critique. But that was another naruhodo moment.

This time, I was listening to fellow students tear apart conservatives, my kind. I loved God; I loved America; I loved capitalism; I loved self-sufficiency; most of all, I loved surety. I even loved my certainty that liberals were not just wrong but bad, people out to milk this country on behalf of handouts for the lazy. If allowed, liberals would steal America’s soul.

Now, here were my classmates criticizing conservatives as not just wrong, but bad, cold-hearted people out to enrich themselves at the expense of the system. I was stunned: they didn’t just disagree with my people; they considered us selfish and evil.


They saw us the same way we saw them: in the words of Lanny Davis (repeated by Scott McClellan in What Happened), as “cultural enemies who were traitors to American values and who needed to be destroyed.”

. . . And then, naruhodo again!

I knew that my conservative friends actually were good people, whether you agreed with their ideas or not. I knew that because I knew them. As people. And my classmates clearly thought the same about their liberal friends: right or wrong philosophically, they were good, humane human beings.

So there it was–and it was so simple: If we each knew our own kind to be good, maybe we were all good. All of us. Maybe I should trust the hearts of liberals, and they should trust the souls of conservatives. Maybe we were indeed all enclosed in God.

As the years passed, I began to expand the circles: believer, agnostic, pro-choice, pro-life, Assemblies of God, Unitarian, the colleague who hates me, the relative I can’t stand. Even (in the words of one sermon at Lake Street Church) Ann Coulter. I don’t have to come round to their ideologies; I do have to accept their God-given, God-embraced humanity.

Talk about getting a glimpse of The Kingdom! Talk about implications for life!

I’ll write at other times about those implications. For now, it is enough to say that I have moved beyond merely believing in this path; I’ve come to love it–at least during those moments when I’m able to get my head around it enough actually to follow it.

It would seem that the warm weather of summer is an inducement to slow down and live life at a more leisurely pace. Summer time and the livin’ is easy-and it’s a good thing because if things didn’t slow down for at least a few months out of the year, many of us would just fall over dead from the incessant demands of life in the 21st century.

While walking through O’Hare airport several weeks ago I looked around and saw that practically everyone was talking on a cell phone. I remembered some 10-12 years ago, all those people would have had to find a pay phone if they wanted to call someone, or wait until they got home-and that was okay then, but now expectations have changed.

It’s ironic. Faster and more efficient technological devices promise to save us time—but everyone I know feels like they have less time.

Did ancient people also feel that time was a thief? No doubt.

But this perception is undeniably compounded by an increasingly frantic pace of life in modern times. When I was a teenager my mother put up a refrigerator magnet that said, “the hurrieder I go, the behinder I get”. It seems that this modern age nudges us to hurry up. But as many of us experience, the more we hurry up, the less time we seem to have.

The less time we seem to have, the more impatient we become. When we are impatient, the world around us becomes a source of frustration. If we are feeling impatient, we are feeling self absorbed.

Last Labor Day weekend, I found myself in the airport in Atlanta. We had just celebrated my grandson Henry’s first birthday. The plane was supposed to leave at 4:00 pm. Thunderstorms put O’Hare on a ground stop. But by 6:00 pm the status had passed. A voice came over the speaker saying we would leave by 7:00, 3 hours late but we all knew it could be worse. We boarded the plane, taxied to the tarmac and sat there 30 minutes, 60 minutes, 90 minutes. The man sitting next to me struck up a conversation saying he was worried that he wouldn’t get into Chicago until after midnight and he had to be on the job by 6:00 am. Finally, by 9:00 pm, (5 hours late) we took off. An hour into the flight the pilot announced there were more storms in Chicago and rather than burn fuel in a holding pattern we’d land in Indianapolis. There was no way we were going to get into Chicago until 2 or 3 in the morning. My seatmate exploded – he hit his seat and cursed.

Fidgeting impatiently, he broke into a sweat and loosened his tie. His mantra was-I can’t deal with this-I can’t deal with this…. He kept mumbling about how tired he was going to be. It was now midnight, and we were sitting in the Indianapolis airport awaiting permission to take off. Suddenly my seatmate burst out laughing. He said, “I might as well just accept it, I’m not going to get any sleep.” “I might as well accept it,” this became his new mantra. Earlier he had told me that he was staying in a Lakefront Hotel in the loop and he had a view of the lake, so I tried to cheer him up. I said, “It’ll be great. You are going to walk into your room and the sun will be coming up over Lake Michigan. It will be a beautiful sight.” By then he was laughing about how all of that angst was a waste of energy.

We have all been in situations when our expectations about what was supposed to happen didn’t pan out. We all know what it’s like to erupt in frustration when events turn against us. We all know what it’s like for our minds to scream at us that it shouldn’t be this way. When things go haywire or we are falling behind impatience invades the mind.

When my seatmate first realized how late we were going to be, his mind began to speed up with negative thoughts. He quickly thought of at least 10 horrible things that could happen.

In the book Take Your Time Ecknath Easwaran says that when our minds are in a hurry, our thoughts are usually negative. A mind in a hurry is not a healthy mind.

Many years ago I had a full blown manic episode. It landed me in the psychiatric intensive care unit. One thing about that experience I remember was how my mind speeded up. Fast thinking is characteristic of a manic episode.

I was thinking fast and thought I was so smart because of my fast thinking mind. But now I see that when my mind was thinking so fast I wasn’t being smart, or clever — my mind was in overdrive which meant that I was so taken with my thoughts that my speedy thoughts were all that mattered to me. To have a crazy mind like that is a weird sensation. The faster the mind the more you create your own version of reality.

But when the mind slows down, there is space and spaciousness—and space and spaciousness in us is what makes room for others and other thoughts. When the mind slows down we become patient—when the mind is quiet, panic dissolves. And when we are less in a panic, less in a hurry, we see that life is not all about me. Learning patience is the process of quieting the mind.

The Sufi mystic Meher Baba put it like this: “A mind that is fast is sick. A mind that is slow is sound. A mind that is still is divine.”

Slow down the mind.

There are two ways to learn patience by slowing down the mind. The first is to become aware of what our minds are doing.

Whether driving a car, biking or walking, if we are running late, we probably started late. If there is not enough time in the day then we are probably trying to fit too much into the available time. If we are feeling irritated with our kids, frustrated with a partner or spouse or annoyed with a relative or aging parent what we need is patience. And the way to get patience is to slow down the mind. The first thing I do to practice patience is to have a little chat with my own mind. It helps me to remember that I have a mind but I am not the mind.

The second thing I do is practice patience every day. I know of no better way to practice patience every day then to practice meditation.

The purpose of meditation is to train the mind to be quiet. By the silent mental repetition of a mantra, the mind becomes absorbed in one thing rather than everything. As long as the fluttering mind is in motion, it is creating a commotion for us. As long as the fluttering mind is in motion it is pushing us to think thoughts, chatter internally, make judgments, keep things moving. Meditation teaches the mind to be patient. The more we are patient, the less we suffer.

Just think about times when you have felt impatient. Think about those times you have felt restless, irritated, anxious and intolerant. To be impatient is to suffer.

The purpose of spirituality is to give us tools that will reduce our suffering. A basic spiritual truth is that the more self absorbed I am, the more I will suffer, and the more I suffer, the more suffering I cause others.

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama once said, “The moment you think only of yourself, the focus of your whole reality narrows, and because of this narrow focus, uncomfortable things can appear huge and bring you fear and discomfort and a sense of feeling overwhelmed by misery. But the moment you think of others with a sense of caring, however, your view widens. Within that wider perspective, your own problems appear to be of little significance, and this makes a big difference.”

We practice patience because it not only reduces our suffering but it also reduces the suffering of those around us.

As I practice slowing down my mind, I learn to settle down, and when I learn to settle down I develop the capacity for compassion and love. Compassion and love are two sides of the same coin. Compassion is the wish for other beings to be free from suffering. Love wants other beings to have happiness.

Compassion and love grow naturally out of the mind that is spacious and slow. This is why practicing patience is the ground out of which compassion and love take root in our lives. And this is why lately, I’ve been repeating the mantra: practice patience – don’t hurry, be happy.

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