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There is nothing more insufferable than a new convert to—just about anything. When you are a new convert you are convinced that you have found it and anyone who doesn’t see it your way is at best, ignorant—at worst, living a life of futility.

My last conversion occurred fifteen years ago when I became a vegetarian. When I stopped eating meat, I knew that every carnivore had no idea about the consequences of their behavior. Didn’t they know they were ingesting flesh? Didn’t they know that animals like humans, are sentient beings who feel pleasure and pain? How can anybody justify consuming a higher form of life?

Of course there are the benefits not only to human health but the general well-being of the planet and the human race (100 acres of land will produce enough beef to feed twenty people but enough wheat to feed 240 people).

As a new convert to vegetarianism, I was appalled by carnivore consciousness. My original and obnoxious vegetarian zeal diminished long ago. Yet, I remain faithful.

My wife Judy, was a vegetarian for a while. But her vegetable vows eventually vanished and now she sometimes eats meat and vegetables.  We are proof that a mixed marriage can work.

Over the years, I’ve gotten over my dietary fervor.  I don’t have to save the world. I don’t even have to save myself.  I just don’t want to put meat in my body and that’s enough truth for me.

How we see the truth depends on the lens through which look.

The problem is that a new convert to anything, believes the Truth (capital T) can be seen without filters. Nowhere is this more evident than in someone who is a new convert to a particular religious or spiritual tradition.

I once had a conversation with a messianic Jew.  I’ve always thought this term to be an oxymoron.

Messianic Jews argue that Jesus (Yeshua) was/is the Jewish messiah and anyone who thinks otherwise just doesn’t get it. I told my partner in dialogue that he was really not a Jew–that in believing Jesus as the messiah meant he was actually a Christian. He freaked out and immediately launched into a polemic as to why I was wrong and he was right. It was a slippery slope from the mountain of dialogue to the monotony of monologue–a thoroughly unsatisfying conversation.

Sometime later I remembered Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow said that human beings seek safety first, and next, security.

When we are converted to another way of life—especially to another religion—we are seeking, above all else, security.

But you don’t have to be a new convert–it’s not uncommon for devotees of any religious or spiritual tradition to believe that their way is the best way if not the only one true way.

Roman Catholics do it, Protestants do it, Jews and Muslims do it—this hint of a superiority complex exists in all our religious traditions. And it applies no less to many atheists. Who hasn’t believed for a moment that through my lens I can see the true unfiltered light?

Is your religious tradition the one true way?

This question begs a deeper one. What is religion and where does it come from?

I once heard the Benedictine monk, David Steindl Rast sum up the history of the world’s religions in two minutes. He said that most religions can trace their beginning to the mystical experiences of one charismatic person, such as Buddha, Moses, Jesus or Muhammad. In all cases, these inimitable teachers exuded such love and compassion that to be in their presence was to be standing on holy ground.

After their deaths, their followers memorialized them by building sacred shrines. They developed rituals that they followed in the hope that the original experience would be rekindled. They took the teachings and turned them into doctrines and moral codes.

The shrines, rituals, teachings and doctrines have been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds and even thousands of years, and present day followers have to rely on tradition rather than first hand experience.

Religion philosopher Huston Smith agrees that the world’s main religions have an essential commonality. He says that they are like a pair of trousers: One at the top and plural at the bottom.

On the mountaintop of mystical experience, Truth is one. Down in the valley of time and space, each religion develops its own unique teachings, rituals and ways of being in the world. In the valley of everyday life, Truth becomes the trouser legs and appears as truths. Life is plural, full of dichotomies, dualities, and pairs of opposites. In this valley, religion gets institutionalized.

When light is broken apart, or refracted, through a prism or water, white light appears as a rainbow spectrum of color. If we think of Truth as light, each religion could represent a particular hue, but none is the full white Divine light itself. The light available in first-hand mystical experience is simply too grand and luminous to be mediated by one or more religious traditions. All religious perceptions imply, infer and point, but none captures all of the light.

Brother David’s history lesson in religious and spiritual truth is a reminder.

No matter how much light we have received, we can never see the light in its unfiltered glory.

Even when I think I see the light the one thing I’ve learned is–there is always more to be seen.

Your real god is that to which you give your ultimate allegiance. To whatever truth you devote your life—that is your god. Everybody has at least one god. I have an atheist friend, well actually I have a lot of atheist friends—but this one is particularly curious how it is that otherwise intelligent people can possibly believe in God. At one of his parties he had just kicked back a martini—swaying back and forth he said , “so from what you say Bob, encountering God is like some sort of cosmic orgasm” (that’s not verbatim but close enough).

He caught me a little off guard—I stood there and thought—huh—I had never thought of it like that—I said “Phil, that’s not a bad analogy—In orgasmic pleasure, for a moment, you lose sense of the separate self–self  importance and self consciousness—you are utterly blissful. It works for me,” I said.

The word ‘God’ carries a lot of baggage and such conversations typically requires  the deconstruction of terms.  If by ‘God’ you are only referring to a separate supreme being who lives up there or out there–if that’s the only definition, then I’m an atheist too.

But If you don’t believe in God because there is no evidence or proof–if you can’t think your way into believing in God, then that’s another matter. Not being defined by material reality or limited to the logical functions of the brain, the God I experience can only be believed in  when we ‘get out of our heads.’  God becomes real when I let go of the separate me.  I can’t let go of the awareness of the separate me so long as I am living in my head–or as a neuroscientist might put it, when it comes to God, by itself, the left hemisphere of the brain has tunnel vision.

As Jill Bolte Taylor so powerfully put it in her book My Stroke of Insight,  the left hemisphere of the brain, has a place, but it’s not the whole story. The left hemisphere is sometimes called logical brain. The right hemisphere of the brain performs creative and intuitive functions. The left hemisphere sees details; the right sees the big picture.

Jill Bolte Taylor argues that we cannot live whole and complete lives unless both hemispheres of the brain are in balance.

I don’t know anything about neuroscience.

But I do know that there are some experiences in life that cannot be figured out or reduced to the available evidence. Sometimes, out in nature, we get so caught up with the incredible mystery and wonder of the natural world that we loose self consciousness and experience our unity with everything. Sometimes this happens with other people. When looking into each other’s eyes we see that we are not two, but one.

Everyone has an ideology. Everyone has a body of principles that govern their lives. The power of positive thinking is an ideology; the protestant work ethic that says you will be rewarded if you live right—is an ideology. Your ideology is how you think about life. Your ideology is the principles by which you live. Your ideology is how you dismantle the puzzle of life so as to put it back together so it makes sense to you.  Ideologies are rooted in the left hemisphere.

But some experiences in life don’t make sense. No matter how hard we think about life—we all have experiences that shatter our logical thinking and our ideologies.

Eckhart Tolle asks, “Have you ever gazed upon the infinity of space on a clear night, awestruck by the absolute stillness and inconceivable vastness of it? Have you listened, truly listened to the sound of a mountain stream in the forest—if so you have put down for a moment your personal baggage of problems or past, and future, as well as your knowledge—to experience these things your total presence is required. But beyond the beauty of external forms, there is more here: something that cannot be named, something ineffable, some deep, inner, holy essence…”

There is no ideology that is true. There is no belief system to contain it all. Because the truth is: life is mystery. In every moment we dwell on the edge of mystery—to see it, to touch it, to enter it, requires presence. Always, always, here and now.

This inexplicable Presence is always in us, always living through us and every living being.

This Presence is the power of connection, not only of the brain’s hemispheres–it is the Power that connects all of life. This Presence is always within us and we in it. We are forever held by It, and when we awaken to It, we touch the ineffable Mystery.

Life is an inexplicable and wondrous Mystery.  I’d even go so far as to say that life is itself God.  Wherever there is life, there is God. It’s a matter of waking up.

To believe this mystery can be reduced to the comprehension of the left hemisphere of the brain is the real joke.

I’ve been a preacher for nearly 25 years—occasionally I’ve had a bit of a break. But for a long time I’ve followed the discipline of letting the biblical text challenge and convert me every week so that I could say something about the good news—something that I hoped was worth listening to. But some months back I began to realize that I shouldn’t keep preaching. At that point I was preaching in different locations just about every Sunday—doing what is known as “supply” work in my denomination. (Such a sad, sort of economic term for officiating at a celebration of the Eucharist and preaching). This realization about preaching didn’t come over me suddenly, although I finally got very clear about it one day after a person in a congregation called me on an example I’d used that seemed to her to set a whole group of people up for criticism—most likely unwarranted. I didn’t entirely agree with her, but realized that I needed to pay attention: there was a deeper reality to be addressed. I simply didn’t have much to say as a preacher.

Oh, I’ve been through dry times before. And having stayed up late at night, woken up in the middle of the night finally “getting it,” I’ve preached well and not-so-well.  I’ve even written a sermon on my way in the door—the whole gamut. This was different. It is different. I simply don’t have much to say. That is most probably why I have been so silent on this blog during the last months. As my friend Bill pointed out to me, I haven’t made an entry since last year. (“December,” I said. But that was beside the point.)

Recently at an informal gathering of clergy women I wondered aloud about all the things we spend time doing in churches—how many of them actually invite folks into the mystery of God’s love? We talked a bit about how hard it is in the church to actually be present to God. One pastor at the table said simply, “How sad.” I was silent. Over the years I’ve grown increasingly drained by the most familiar “explanations” of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection. My tradition is one that places a high value on order—not much spontaneous happens in worship. But often, the many well-crafted words spoken in worship seem to me to be so pitifully inadequate or misleading. I read somewhere that Aquinas once said, ”I have seen things that make all my writings seem like straw.”  Not that I’ve seen things so clearly, but even my intuitions lead me to silence these days.

Many years ago I pronounced a blessing over a woman, ending my prayer with the words “in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.” She drew back, angry, and told me with complete certainty, ”I don’t need redeeming!” (So much for more inclusive language.) Now I think perhaps I understand her point—at least what it might have been—she didn’t explain at the time. What she needed maybe was not someone to redeem her from her sins as though she were damaged merchandise, but someone to open her heart to God. I was silent then. And am more so now.

Not that we don’t have darkness within us. I am aware of at least some of my own—and my efforts over the years to deny, bury, control my darknesses. Yesterday morning as I drove to worship I got on the road behind an open pick-up truck pulling a little trailer. Both were piled high with stuff: some of it significant, weighty, furniture, a mattress, a chair, and all kinds of other stuff thrown in too, trashcans, pillows, rugs, miscellaneous items. The truck had one rope tied around it, and there was one around the trailer too. One rope holding all the stuff in place. I wondered to myself, “Surely he (it was a he) won’t drive that on to the freeway.”  But of course he did. And the instant he picked up speed, the stuff started flying all over the freeway, trashcans, pillows, boxes, flying free. Jettisoned. It was something to see. I had to laugh.

But then I fell silent.

I’d caught a vision of my own interior life. I’ve been getting rid of material stuff for a number of years now. I live a lot leaner than I once did, but inside me there’s still all kinds of stuff—some light, some dark, some weighty, some not so. In his book Things Hidden, Richard Rohr uses the metaphor of Noah’s ark to talk about how God is in the business of holding. Holding it all together. Encompassing it all. The good, the bad, the ugly. The animals you’d expect to eat each other alive. The parts I’d like to hide or hide from: anger, judgment, grief, jealousy, fear. . . The parts like generosity and kindness that are there too. My own little ropes, tied by my own devising and hard work are pretty pitiful when I get out in the real world: stuff is always falling out, being jettisoned, and sometimes in public no less.

Oh, I trust that I will let go of what needs letting go of as I am more deeply transformed by God’s love. (Maybe that was a Pentecostal wind that blew all that stuff out onto the freeway)  But, inside the truck and the trailer is an important place—there in the holding together—the meeting of the opposites, the enduring withness, the bearing of the truth of who I am, who we  are—there is where my life is being deepened. The school of love is found in facing the other, the other outside me and the other within me. In the what is-ness.

I think that is where I am these days. I am just trying each day to live more deeply into what this divine holding might mean. The implications are more than words can hold. I knew a priest once, a mystic really, who toward the end of his life would only celebrate the Eucharist in silence. Without a word. Maybe that’s where I’m headed.

I was riding my bicycle on Lake Drive into the beautiful northern suburbs of Milwaukee on a perfect late summer day, Labor Day afternoon.   My body was racked.  Alcohol was responsible, er…, I was responsible for the racking, but this was nothing new.  I had really been having a nine-year hangover, one day at a time, until late in the day each day, at which time I would nurse the egregious condition by taking a drink.

This particular hangover resulted from the previous night’s celebration of the departure of one of my friends who would soon leave to begin his studies in theology , to eventually  be ordained a Jesuit priest.  My own theological studies were already underway, having just completed the first year of theology in preparation for my own ordination.  I was in my ninth year in the Society of Jesus, seven days away from my thirtieth birthday.

My bicycle wobbled up yet another hill when I heard the words:  You don’t have to drink anymore.

Not you can’t, nor you shouldn’t nor you won’t .  Strategically, You don’t have to.

I knew with an intense clarity that it was over.  The dozen years in its grip, really, the thirty, the embarrassments and the shames and the fears and the haunting feeling that I was dying.  Gone.  Lifted.  Removed.  Over.

In an instant.

My first thought:  I’ll never be able to go to a party again.  I did like parties.  And people.  And singing.  And the camaraderie that came, or seemed to come, from the sauce.  But I did not doubt that it was over and I sensed that whatever it meant would be revealed in time.

That night I went to a party.  Having a drink did not enter my mind, nor has it on any day since.  Thirty years ago this past September.

A compulsion , yes.  A disease, well, yes.  Self-medication, yes, and very effective, I might add.  Repression, certainly and, within the cultures I lived, appropriately so.  But a grace, too, a gift with which I would not willingly part, the beginning for me of the journey I find myself yet on.

Four weeks after the lifting, I put on my Roman collar and left my Jesuit community in the abject ghetto of West Oakland and took BART into the City.  I was going to attend a political rally, this one a very important one indeed, though its importance not yet revealed as I crossed under the Bay.  A proposition was on the ballot in the State of California (it might appear that this is the only form of government we exercise here, and there is some truth in that) that would cause all schoolteachers who were gay or lesbian to be fired from their positions.  The offense?  Being.  Gay.

There was to be a rally of religious leaders who were against the proposition in San Francisco’s elegant Civic Center where the nation’s only out-gay elected official, city supervisor Harvey Milk, would speak, along with several others.  The highest ranking Roman Catholic who was willing to be on the podium with Milk was a Good Shepherd Sister, Eileen de Long.  Milk, as you know if you have seen the eponymous and fine Gus Van Sant movie, gave a standard speech rallying the community with the focus on those young people who were still caught in their horrific systems and who lived in fear that they were the only ones, the only ones who suffered this untenable affliction, this draw to love someone of the same gender.  So simple, isn’t it?  Or seemingly so.  Love.  Love denied, thwarted, judged, condemned, perjured, slandered, beaten, attacked, vilified, marginalized.  I need not go on.  For them Milk held such compassion.

I went to the rally poised to be another concerned liberal friend of this nascent gay community.  I wore my Roman collar for what protection I thought I needed to ward off…what?  My self, my desires, my knowledge of my own sexuality that had been irrevocable since puberty, and in its fullness, constituent in me in a correspondence with my date of birth.

Milk was giving his moving exhortation and in front of me were two young men holding each other.  I had never before seen such a sight.  Their tender regard was breathtaking and deeply disconcerting.  How could this be, all of this, this whole thing, this life so parsed out and compartmentalized and moralized and effected into life scripts that caused such pain and wreaked such havoc now upended  in the sight of these two beautiful young men.  I pulled the white plastic tab from the Roman collar, and I wept.  I wept tears of joy and of shame and of relief and of exhaustion and of hope and of enough.  Tears of enough.

At the rally’s conclusion, fired up by Milk and all of that beauty and tenderness, I took BART back to my small Jesuit community in West Oakland, put a piece of paper into my Selectric (a machine yet to be rivaled for efficiency and style) and typed out the words:  I am a gay man. 

It was an astounding act.  A declaration.  A submission.  A response.  A moment of truth telling I had waited unconsciously for since my first inclinations at Creighton Preparatory School, when I wanted so badly to be so close to a boy in my homeroom who appeared to be for me everything one would want to be close to.  And for me this shame and disgrace.

I pulled that piece of paper with its newly minted declaration out of that typewriter and pinned it onto my bulletin board where I would see it every day.  As if I would ever again need to be reminded.

A second gift, a manifestation, a  great grace, this finally acknowledging being gay.

Sober thirty days and lots had been happening!

That next day, I returned to my classes, notwithstanding this recent potent declaration with all of its meanings.   This coming out did not alter my sense of vocation, my call.  I had felt called since a boy, and was shaped, too,  to be feeling these things that I was feeling.  I grew up in such a cultural moment that the priesthood was an active possibility for every Catholic boy, and for some of us, the path that we somehow had always been on.  At thirteen, I considered going to a minor seminary, but waited.  After four years at Prep, I considered again entering the Jesuits, but waited.  After four years at Creighton University, I made the decision to join the Jesuits and give over my life to them and to the One who in my heart had always been the primary object of my desire.

How is it one feels these things?  How is it one discerns that course of life, especially when so young?  What else is it or might it be about?  What grace is being manifest? What compensation does it mollify, what repression does it hold, what shadow does it cover?  I suspect for me the movement was complex, consisting of motives over a wide range of my understandings, needs and desires.  And I sensed the presence of Someone whose name I could really not know but whose finger, if you will, was pointing to something just over the horizon, almost imperceptibly touching my right shoulder, nudging me on.  But who knows?  I trusted what I knew.

And for what I didn’t or what I couldn’t, I drank.  Not so unusual, really, considering the time and place, and I managed to keep it from being so apparent or a sloppy or chaos-making (at least externally) as so many of us were able to do so that it was yet another part of the complexity that was me.  And I was far from alone.  But when my drinking was lifted Labor Day afternoon, uncovered ground was now exposed, and some large accounting within necessarily had to occur.

As I returned to classes, I shared the news of my gaying awareness broadly.  I had no intention of leaving the Society of Jesus and believed I could find a place to provide ministering as a self-identified gay Jesuit priest.  My fellow theology students were only encouraging, and my spiritual director, the late Peter Fleming, SJ, blessed me, but warned me, too.   But when I shared this good news with the superior from my Midwestern province, he told me to never speak of this again.  He clearly did not get the coming-out part, of which I already was and could only continue to be.  But he departed for the Midwest from his annual visitation to Berkeley, and I continued my journey.  I flew to Omaha and came out to my extended family Christmas 1978 (I’m sober, too!).  My mother’s first words when I came out to her:  I’ve known this since you were about four years old.  I didn’t know how to talk about this with you lest I’d  been wrong.  A more endearing response is not imaginable.  My father, conversely, channeled the Jesuit provincial, and said only:  Now you never have to speak of this again.  He missed some essential piece of the story, not that was not new information for me, either.

That spring, young Jesuits in the second year of theological studies, as was I,  were invited to ask permission to make formal application to be ordained.  One could not make such application without the prior approval of one’s superiors, a winnowing out step that would prevent some greater mishap from occurring a bit later.  The letter was to be a compendium of one’s understanding of one’s years in the Society and of one’s ongoing call to orders, that is, priesthood.   I asked for such permission and was, without comment, invited to so apply to be ordained a priest in and of the Society of Jesus.

I had been a Jesuit for going on ten years, the first decade of my adult life.  I had been their pupil for the eight years prior, and hence, I truly had belonged to them for eighteen years.  Their ways, their language, theology, intellectual erudition,  cultural savvy, manners, elevated status, illustrious saints, deep spirituality, vision, clarity of purpose, preferential option for the poor, situation ethics, worldliness,  equal aptitude for the arts and for science, illustrious history,  and life-giving brotherhood were in my very marrow .  This way was the way I knew much that I knew of the world.  This way was in many ways the way I knew myself.  This way acknowledged the vagaries of my personality, blessed my gifts and worked with my deficiencies, and embraced my person.

With my formal letter of request due on Easter Monday, I preached my first public homily at the Maundy Thursday Eucharist, feeling deeply alive and grateful for my being and for Being itself.  I went home that evening to my little community to write my formal request, now that I had been permissioned, to be ordained a Jesuit priest.

I prayed for clarity that night, to be myself.  Afterwards, I once again put a piece of paper into my Selectric, and typed, on this occasion, nothing. No words came out onto the page.   No words were capable of being shaped by my mind to seek these orders.  That which I had spent much of my conscious life preparing for could not find expression as a request.  The response to my desire to be a priest was silence.  And I felt peace, just peace, and knowing, and an acceptance of it all, of the previous ten years, and of the eighteen, and of the thirty, and I knew it all and what was to come were but of a piece, a piece of a story we are privileged to live, of which we are its authors and are not at all, a story writ large of which part we give it its distinctions and uniqueness and flavor and extension but not its breath or blood or body or even the dailiness of its events.

I knew that for me what and how I was to do and be was to be a true man for others, a priest, if you will, laid elsewhere.  I loved the Jesuits so much, they had been for me a gift of profound proportions, an extended grace, and  I found my departure (thirty years ago this week) bittersweet.  I wrote my Jesuit brothers a letter of love and gratitude for all that they had been and given to me and allowed me to become in their midst.   As hard a letter I have not since written.  But I was to be one no longer.

A week ago Scott and I went to the home of a friend, another former Jesuit and his husband, for a dinner party.  Present were several former Jesuits and their spouses, all working effectively in the fields of love, and several Jesuits, friends of all of ours, and several women and men, in pairs and singly, the widow of another former Jesuit among others, all ministering in several kinds, all sitting around an extended table, all sharing bread and wine, along with spaghetti and meatballs, and homemade apple pie.  It was  a most expansive evening, and glittering too, the lights and candles glancing off the stemware, illuminating beautiful faces of all present, women and men, Jesuits and not, all committed to the poor and to the work of justice and each aware of the paradox and contradiction in all of our lives, and moving with and against it all into some kind of new light, some new way, some new intuition, of what the divine is like, or might be, or is emerging into, with our minute parts being only our willingness to be but ourselves and remain open to all the voices that invite us to that place within, that seat of wisdom, that still small voice, the one the world cannot know but which, in the din of material desperation, in its loneliness and vacuity, it hopes against hope we each are listening to, and discerning, each in her wisdom and his intuition, and then willing to become, with all the clarity of purpose it requires, simply, for others, for the earth, for all of this graced creation.

Gifts are given when they will.  We are only to be present and available.  The triptych of events that visited me between Labor Day of 1978 and Easter Sunday of 1979 altered the outward direction of my life, while shedding more light on the ongoing interior work.  Sometimes the visitations we receive are sweet, sometimes not.  But afterwards, and always, the work to become a human being remains, really only each day, one day leading into the next.

His Holiness The Dalai Lama tells a story on himself. A number of years ago he was slated to give a talk in Tokyo. He sat on the platform awaiting his turn. The host gave a beautiful and extravagant speech about the gorgeous arrangement of flowers on the table that were to be given to the guest of honor. When the speech concluded, The Dalai Lama, assuming that he was the guest of honor, got out of his chair and walked across the platform in the direction of the flowers—when he heard the speaker say the flowers were intended for somebody else he returned to his chair, embarrassed and blushing.

Few would deny that His Holiness the Dalai Lama  is someone who’s pretty good at being a spiritual being on a human journey. Many people believe he is a fully enlightened being, a Buddha. But when asked who he really is, he always answers the same way, “I am just a simple monk.”   And he says this so authentically and with such sincerity that there’s little doubt he really means it.

We are spiritual beings on a human journey and to understand this means that we don’t know always know when to get up, when to sit down, how to get to where we want to go or what we will find along the way.

Many people believe an enlightened spiritual being can walk on water, has a bag supernatural tricks, doesn’t have difficulties or pain and especially doesn’t have worries. A truly enlightened spiritual being always knows how to do the right thing at the right time in the right way.

It’s true that the human journey takes us from place to place and person to person and sometimes we go with the flow, sometimes we resist.

Life causes us to change our location—we move from here to there but the deeper question is what happens in us when circumstances change.

There is the story of the Zen Master who stood before his students. As he was about to deliver his sermon he opened his mouth—but before a word came out, a bird just outside the window began to sing.

The Zen master stood silently until the bird stopped singing.  “Ah,” the Zen Master said, “the sermon has just been delivered.”

The song of transformation begins as the heart opens.

The spiritual frontier awaits us in the inner space of the heart.

Wherever my heart closes is my spiritual frontier. Wherever your heart closes is your spiritual frontier. We happen upon our spiritual frontier at the darndest times and with the most surprising people. We never know when the heart will close. But we all know what it feels like when the heart closes—walls itself off—armors itself against an experience or some other person. Keeping our distance, we push back inside—but when we do this we back away from the borders of our own spiritual frontier.

Nobody ever really changes unless there is a change of heart. Brother David Stendl-Rast writes, “When we reach our innermost heart, we reach a realm where we are not only intimately at home with ourselves, but intimately united with others, all others. The heart is never a lonely place. It is the realm where solitude and togetherness coincide. Our own experience proves this, does it not?  Can one ever say, “Now I am truly together with myself, yet I remain alienated from others?”  Or could one say, “I am truly together with others, or even just with one other person I love, yet I remain alienated from myself?”  Unthinkable!  The moment we are one with ourselves, we are one with all others.  We have overcome alienation.

The spiritual frontier is within us. When we choose to enter this spiritual frontier we become more than we are by waking up to who we are already.

Three summers ago, Scott and I travelled in Italy, making our camp in Umbria, and I spent a glorious morning alone in Assisi.  The ancient hillside town is Francisco-fied to the max, but it was inoffensive,  even endearing.  I arrived at dawn, participated non-verbally in a Eucharist with several old women and an equally old priest, and roamed the town before the tourists (like me!) arrived for the day.

The heart of the Assisi journey are the interlocking churches that celebrate Francis’ life and death, and among the glories are the literally incomparable Giotto walls and ceilings in the lower church, the awe-filled crypt where Francis is buried and to which pilgrims (like me!) kneel in some kind of awe-filled adoration.  As I slowly meandered through the churches, at one point I saw a small sign that pointed to museo.  I followed it down deeper into the cavernous space, and came upon a small room, no bigger than a large parlor, which contained Francis’ effects.  On the western wall was a large Plexiglas frame the size of a massive painting, and in the frame, splayed out like some couture gone wild, was Francis often-self-repaired brown habit.  When my eyes were clear as to onto what they were gazing, I went over to the Plexiglas, spread out my hands as if to embrace it, and I began to weep.  I wept, and I continued to weep, and had to leave.  I found myself outside, in a courtyard, and continued to weep.

What had so moved me about that robe?  Its prominence in the Francis’ iconography?  Its proximity to his person, housing and protecting his flesh?  The perhaps hundreds of repairs in its modest circumference?  His exemplary life, with the trickster in him available to all, the invitation to surrender which he models nonpareil?  The abject poverty of his habit in contrast to the lush midnight blues and gold stars of the Giotto’s  just a few feet above?  I did not know.

We later ventured to Rome, my first time in someone’s eternal city.  Like Dr. Jung, I could not visit the Vatican, but I did hightail it to the Gesu, the mother church of the Society of Jesus, the order which educated me, gave me a lot of my trenchancy, and to which I belonged and aspired to serve for the first decade of my adult life.

The Gesu is the polar opposite of Francis’ robe.  It’s in all of the books as the finest exemplar of Baroque architecture.   It has lived for two score years in my imagination as a series of large golden swoops of grandeur, triumphant  in its vastness.  It did not fail to impress.

On the left side of the nave, up near the high altar, is the altar where Saint Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, is buried.  While a Jesuit, I had no real truck with him, always preferring the more romantic  Francis Xavier as my model.  But being where I was, I knelt on the prie-dieu in front of Ignatius crypt, not intending to word anything, and I heard instead these: Write what you know.

I stayed for the Eucharist, marveled at the international congregation,  felt connected to each of them, and left the Church as the late afternoon sun was setting over the buildings west of the piazza that formed the church’s welcome.

Write what you know.  From Ignatius, no less.  I had not prayed for this instruction, nor desired it, nor really wanted it.  But it heard so clear.

I have heard such unaccounted declarations in my life, once in 1974 on a retreat in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, so humid I might have been hallucinating; in 1978, riding on as bicycle on Lake Shore Drive in Milwaukee, not quite knocked off the bike à la Damascus but nonetheless life-altering;  a third time four years later, while quietly sitting on my sofa reading the newspaper one February morning.    These were followed by a triptych of dreams in 1990 that demanded similar attention.

We get these visitations, no?  We hear what we are intended to hear, we are messaged in grace notes that drift into our consciousnesses from some deeper place in the interior, or perhaps exterior, we don’t really know.  The messages are always simple, declarative, and life-threatening.  As least as we are currently leading our lives.

A year ago March, I ventured up to a Trappist monastery in Oregon, a beautiful house set into the wooded hillside of the Cascade’s coast range southwest of Portland.  Named Our Lady of Guadalupe, as fine a virgin as one could want to sit near in a fir-beamed chapel, I went to spend nine days still.  The monks were silently hospitable, the other guest dutifully bowed, and the atmosphere was for me, perfect.  I used to joke with Scott that if he died first, after I gave away our earthly possessions, I would buy an Airstream and park it near a Trappist monastery, not to belong, God forbid!, but to go in when I felt like it to absorb the silence and lend my voice to the occasional chant.

At this particular house of prayer, they had constructed a zendo, a large building fitted with zafus, meditation cushions arrayed in an orderly fashion all facing the full wall glass window that looked out into the forest.  Having practiced my own spiritual discipline in such a seated position for many years, the room, with its Eastern aesthetic and spare Christian iconography was a happy blend of something resonating within, and it was there I would go each day for the several times I wanted to pray.  Late in the evening, the chapel was dark and most inviting.

On the seventh night of my retreat, while sitting, I had a certain experience.   Perhaps I could say I was experienced.  Or perhaps, I no longer was, but reality was, now present within me.   What?  Awareness, or a keen knowing, or a heightened sense, all might capture this, though, again, they cannot.   I received this time, or was it no-time, as a gift, that was so clear, as was everything.  A gift, and that clear.  Transcendent?  Immanent?  Neither or both all at once?  One cannot know.  A gift, though, for sure, and that clear.

And then, I was again just sitting, in the zendo, my little votive flickering, my body just mine, my mind as present, or not, as it could be, my sensibility altered but, then again, not at all.  I don’t know when I blew out my candle, but I did, and I returned to my small cell and went to sleep.

I drove home a couple of days later, and for several weeks, felt clear.  So clear.  As if none of the accumulated smog of my life, especially the dark spiritual particles, blocked my perception of that which we are invited to perceive.  Everyday.  Clear.

I did nothing to sustain this, and sensed I could do nothing to end it, either.  I felt peaceful, and most alive.

One day, perhaps a month out, I was sitting in my office listening to a client share a story from his complicated and pain-filled life.   In his narrative he began to share a particular moment in his life from the previous weekend, and I felt this presence that had inhabited me for a month drain from my body, from my psyche, in a moment.  And, in that moment, my sense of myself prior to that night in the zendo returned or resurfaced or reclaimed my ego-ridden self.  I felt the uninvited presence, providing such clarity and peace, vanish.

In the days that followed, I grew bereft.  Sadness overtook me, not the sadness that accompanies painful events, nor the grief that comes from the loss of some secured source of love, nor the general malaise that overcomes us and moods us darkly.  No.  This sadness went to some rooted place and has held me in its grip now for going on fifteen months.

It startles me, leaves me on many days vacant, has led to unreferenced  tears , scrambles my categories and my many knowings, has upended the order which I so assiduously have placed into my life these past thirty years.  No human thing provides the consolation some part of me, perhaps some previously unknown part (could that be?), desires.

What I have had to acknowledge to myself is that what I do know is mostly unsayable.  The space I inhabit is mostly islandic.  What I hear is often foreboding.  What I do is often uncountenanced.  How I feel I do not finds word to communicate, even with the superb vocabularies the Jesuits and Dr. Jung have given to me.

Those of you raised in tornado territory know the moments before the storm approaches, everything grows very still, and the landscape and atmosphere take on an almost iridescent green aspect.  It is both beguiling and stunning, and one knows the arrival of the tempest is momentary, and you’d better take cover, cover deep inside a basement or under some big oaken table purchased purportedly to host family gatherings but purposed all along to protect you from being hurled some hundreds of feet into the air and dropped in the neighboring county, on your head, dead.

That is how I feel.  A serene stillness mixed with an affectless dread.  It nudges me to its borderlands, and without gesture, mocks my indigence.  The patterns of my life, so finely honed and so ably supple over several decades, do not provide an adequate map.  I have done enough interior work—psychotherapy and praying–to suspect that within the compost of my soul, without the assistance of my reptilian brain, some barely perceptible process is underfoot.  But that, for sure, I do not know, and certainly do not claim.

I stare at others from afar, or very near, and it seems sometimes feel their very feelings, though I know that could not be.  The suffering of the world feels very close and acute, and without my power to effect much at all.  The savior my complex suggested for me when I was but very young has died.  I do not recognize what might be in his wake.

I work to mend the tattered habit, sometimes right through the Plexiglas, I recognize the presence of that whose only name is Nothing, though I evidently do not surrender, and in this instance, I write what I know.

“The pig is a very dangerous animal when it comes to the flu,” said Dr. Peter Katona, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It has the ability to recombine genetic material from different species, something that neither birds nor humans can do. And now we’ve got a new form of flu that nobody’s had contact with.”

The pig is a very dangerous animal.

My mother implied this when she screamed at me when I was a teenager, “Don’t be such a pig!”

I didn’t think of myself as dangerous, but it did occur to me that she worried that my messy adolescent behavior might be a contagion.

Join the word swine with flu and you have a scourge that hogs the news.  “Don’t call it swine flu,” scream the hog farmers. Their protests are not irrational.  “It is an unfortunate use of words,” said Dave Warner, a spokesman with the National Pork Producers Council. “It does trouble us from that standpoint because it’s very much a public health issue right now and there’s no indication that a pig gave it to a human. To call it a `swine flu’ I think is a little bit misleading.”

No doubt, this is the reason that President Obama recently referred to the swine flu virus using its scientific name, H1N1. Don’t worry about eating a pig. Don’t think for a moment that eating cooked pork will expose you to the virus. Swine flu is a misnomer.   Indeed, the World Health Organization , has issued a statement that says H1N1 does not pose a risk for well cooked pork or pork products.

Déjà vu all over again, Mad Cow flu, bird flu, swine flu.  Cast out the animal name; it’s bad for business.

As a vegetarian, I am amused by this global pork panic.  While eating pork is not a real or imagined risk for me, I can’t help but recall a story from the Gospels.

In this story, Jesus meets a man possessed by demons. Like a modern day schizophrenic, the man heard many voices within, all of them together, filled him with fear. As these disparate inner voices erupted from his mouth, the people in his village were understandably terrified whenever he spoke. They thought this guy was crazy. Indeed he was.

When Jesus approached the man, he asked, “What is your name?” From the man’s mouth came the words, “My name is legion for we are many.” Upon hearing this, Jesus performed an exorcism and sent the legion of demons in that man out, into a herd of swine. Filled with the throng of demons, the swine rushed over a cliff into the sea.

Talk about the swine flu (flew)!

The man’s inner voices, (his inner pigs?)—made him unacceptable to his village. Jesus cast his legion of identities out into a herd of pigs (pork being unclean in the eyes of his community) thereby freeing him from living a fragmented life and restoring him to his community. The miracle worker, Jesus, returned the man to his true identity as a healthy human being by helping him face and overcome what had separated him from his community.  No longer fragmented by his fears, he was freed to live, fearlessly, in his own life.

It’s only when we face the fear that separates us that we are able to transcend it or cast it out.

National Public Radio reporter Daniel Hernandez recently offered a profound essay on his experience in Mexico City during the swine flu panic. Reflecting on the epidemic he said, “On most Sundays, Mexico City is a moving carnival of food and fiestas, protests and parades. But this Sunday, it felt like some kind of unpleasant office party. People passed one another uncomfortably on the wide-open streets, nearly everyone wearing a blue or white face-mask to ward off this mysterious new ‘swine flu.’  Above those covered mouths, suspicious eyes scanned those of fellow strangers. Could he have it? Could she?”

In this way, the current swine flu pandemic is a reminder of how just beneath the surface lurks our fear of each other. It doesn’t take much for us to slip into seeing each other as a stranger rather than a friend.

This is the real inner pig.  We project onto others what we fear may appear in ourselves.  Before we can cast out this inner pig we’ve got to face it down.

In a time of crisis it’s easy to live by projection rather than self reflection. In a time of fear we go apocalyptic.

But what if the current plague is simply a reminder of what human beings have learned in the midst of all the other plagues in all the other times. What if in this time of our fear of swine flu, the fear of the darkness that threatens to overcome us is really a light? The poet,  May Sarton wrote,

without darkness,
Nothing comes to birth,
As without light,
nothing flowers.

Perhaps this swine flu pandemic is a reminder that the darkness that seems to separate us is really a light that reminds us of our innate and irrevocable connection–even to those who wear a mask.

Do you know someone with swine flu? Well then, take the appropriate precautions. Put on the mask to protect your nose and mouth, cover your hands with gloves–then overcome your fear with love.

Perhaps the swine flu metaphor is a reminder not of how we must fear each other, but of how much we need each other.  Perhaps this “pandemic” is one more reminder that its only when we face our inner pig do we know how to love and accept the pig (and pig flu) in each other.

Love your inner pig.

A friend got my attention the other day when she wrote that few of her female friends had been able to find husbands willing to support them as strong women. When another friend wrote something similar the next day, I began thinking seriously. And when my daughter relayed an NPR report that today’s children are being taught to look out for themselves but not for others, I started thinking even harder.

Doom-mongering is not my style. Nor do I think things are worse than they used to be. Good old days are good only because they are no longer around to remind us of their messy complexity.

Nonetheless, I worry. Nothing is more fundamental in the life of faith–nay, in life itself–than the call to love others. Love you neighbor as you love yourself, said Jesus. If you do not tend one another, then who is there to tend you? ask the Buddhist scriptures.

This seems too obvious to merit discussion. But is it? And if it is, why do I have so much trouble practicing it?

Why, I have asked myself time and again this week, is it so easy to hate–and so hard to empathize? Why so easy for this morning’s Chicago Tribune to demand that we “sink on sight” every Somali boat that leaves shore, with barely a word about the conditions that turned those fishermen into pirates?

Why so much fun to hate Bernard Madoff, or the CEOs who kept accepting those bonuses, while ignoring my own greed?

Why such relish in jumping on Rod Blagojovich? Or Sarah Palin? Or Barak Obama? Or Lindsay Lohan?

Do Christ and Buddha call for uncritical sympathy for those with whom I disagree, or those who do what I consider wrong? Absolutely not. Neither do they ask me to stop looking out for myself. I am urged, after all, to love my neighbor as I love myself.

What they ask is that I take seriously something that Bob Thompson wrote recently: “One and all, we are Christs in the making.” All of us? Somali pirates? Rod Blagojevich? Sarah Palin? Bernard Madoff? Me? Yes, absolutely yes.

And what would it mean if I took that seriously?

It would mean being as concerned about the joy of my spouse, friend, or partner as I am about my own.

It would mean seeing the good in the Iranians, the grumpy neighbors, the pirates–and treating them with the respect I would like people to show me, or my own father or mother.

It would mean encountering a rude sales clerk, or taxi driver, or neighbor and asking how I could cheer her up rather than snapping back.

It would mean caring (and doing something) about the economic plight of people who hurt–before the stock market and home mortgage crisis made me feel the pinch myself.

And it would mean beginning to really live: beyond bitterness, beyond self-doubt, beyond fear (it is love, after all, not courage, that casts out fear), beyond my own self-absorbed world. “To live,” said Nitobe Inazō, the Japanese vice-president of the League of Nations in the 1920s, “is to work for others; to die is to do nothing.”

Last August, my family and I blew a tire on a deserted Wyoming road. The sun was blazing, the temperature in the 90s; there was no shade. I began to worry when the old tire would not come off and a Triple-A clerk told me the nearest help center was 60 miles away. My grandchildren looked so vulnerable under the sun.

Then Hub, a rough cowboy-turned-singer, drove up, got out his tools, and fixed the tire. It was a simple act, but the love overwhelmed me. I’d been the recipient of the sharing that lies at the heart of faith. He’d reminded me, not only how profoundly connected we are–but how cold (or scorching !) and desolate life is when I live unconnected.

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