Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Gratitude and Miracles

A recent discussion of Luke 17:11-19, where Jesus heals ten lepers and one returns to thank him, has caused me to consider the connection between gratitude, attentiveness and miracles. In this healing story, the lepers are told to go and show themselves to the priest and as they are on their way, they are healed. I wonder if the healing was gradual, happening as they traveled to be declared clean by the priest.

How often do we notice gradual healing as a miracle, a gift from God? When healing happens over a period of time, do we end up acting like the nine lepers who didn’t return? Do we chalk up our healing to good medicine, good fortune or our own self-care?

Attentiveness gives us the ability to see just how miraculous is life itself, as is the world in which we live. God’s activity in all of it is right out in front for us to see, touch and taste. Each breath is a miracle. Each flower is miraculous. It’s a miracle that the rain that falls is the same rain that fell on Noah, and that flows through aquifers, to be drawn up from water wells by my friends in Guatemala and El Salvador. What we may see as mundane is actually miraculous, and this way of seeing cannot help but make us grateful.

Gratitude is the key that opens us up to love God and others, that unclenches our fists to share what we have with others, to die to self, to give ourselves away. If we are ungrateful, we live with a mentality of scarcity. Gratitude grows when we recognize the abundance of every moment. Gratitude takes our action, our service for God and others, and infuses it with love. Action without gratitude does not honor God.

Every moment of life is shot through with miracles. If you have a hard time seeing them, start by paying attention to your heartbeat, which happens without any effort on your part. Learn to appreciate these small but important miracles that flood our lives with love and light!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Awareness of Reality

Yet the sea as the fish feels it, the borage as the bee sees it, the intricate sounds of the hedgerow as heard by the rabbit, the impact of light on the eager face of the primrose, the landscape as known in its vastness to the wood-louse and ant—all these experiences, denied to him forever, have just as much claim to the attribute of Being as his own partial and subjective interpretations of things.
         Evelyn Underhill—Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People

Evelyn Underhill says that what we know is mostly our impressions of things. Our view of reality is just that: our view. We see the world through the lens of our own experience, and unless we are willing to get outside of ourselves, we mistake our experience for the only reality there is.

In lovely language, Underhill points out that the fish, the bee, the rabbit, the flower and even the bug have their own life experiences, no less real than our own. Have you ever paused to consider what the world looks like through the eyes of a caterpillar, or a wren, or a tree? I wonder if we might be more careful about the environment if we could imagine the perspective of a creature other than ourselves.

Our vision must also be stretched if we are to understand the reality of other people. Hospitable listening helps with this. This kind of listening is not trying to persuade, advance one’s own agenda, or make judgments of the other; instead, this is a deep listening, listening with the ear of the heart, both to what is said and what remains unsaid.

When my point of view has been changed, it’s not typically because someone has tried to persuade me. Usually I change my thinking because I’ve experienced another’s reality, through being with another in their experience or through deep listening to their experience. When I experience another’s reality, my own reality is broadened, and the role my experience plays in my life no longer is the all-consuming force it once was. In simple language, as my reality grows to encompass another’s reality, life is no longer simply all about my wants, wishes and preferences. It’s a freer and more generous way to live because I don’t have to argue for what benefits me at the expense of another.

Such an expanded field of vision helps me to realize just how much I don’t know. It’s a much bigger world, a much bigger life, created by a God beyond comprehension!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Moving Toward Simple

The education of the mystical sense begins in self-simplification. The feeling, willing, seeing self is to move from the various and the analytic to the simple and synthetic: a sentence which may cause hard breathing and mopping of the brows on the part of the practical [person]. – Evelyn Underhill

I would have liked to know Evelyn Underhill. Reading her book, Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People, reveals a wry sense of humor as she communicates deep wisdom. The quote above is a good example.

We are a culture averse to self-simplification. Underhill wrote in the time prior to World War I, and recognized in that era that Western culture was not interested in self-simplification. A century later, that is still true. We analyze everything to the nth degree. The President makes a 20 minute address to the nation and the analysts spend hours dissecting it.

We complicate our lives by both our activities and our possessions. Recently, I accompanied my husband to a business dinner where people around the table were comparing notes on the number of e-mail messages each received in a day’s time. At another gathering, I heard a tablemate describing a kitchen appliance that sounded like some sort of specialized blender. She had not been able to use it because the instructions were so complicated. Whenever I hear advertisements for satellite TV or radio services, I wonder why we really need 200+ options for listening to or viewing media.

What a radical notion—to choose simple in a culture of complex, to observe the synthesis, the interrelatedness of life instead of segregating ideas, music and appliances into singular categories or uses. Imagine how it might be to savor a song, reflecting on its lyrics, enjoying the harmonies or the interplay of instruments, rather than switching from station to station. What if you had a favorite skillet that you used regularly to create many dishes rather than having multiple, single-use appliances that clutter your kitchen and are used infrequently?

To choose simple as a way to connect more fully to God may mean less activity and more solitude, less reading and more silence, fewer words when praying and more listening. This is not a call for undisciplined haphazardness—reading the Bible when I remember to do so or serving others only when it doesn’t conflict with something I’d rather do—but instead is about a disciplined attentiveness to deepening relationship with God through regular silence and solitude and by engaging in activity for the sake of God’s kingdom that may not garner any attention or accolades from others.

Underhill’s observation that self-simplification is the way to open ourselves to greater connection to God certainly would lessen the inventory of many bookstores, reduce the number of Christian conferences and render inconsequential many of the seemingly burning issues that divide Christians, which is why it will not likely be a widespread movement. But I believe she is onto something in her call for self-simplification, however dull and unstimulating it may appear against our ego-oriented culture of more, bigger and busier. Jesus, after all, compares the Kingdom of God to yeast that works its way unseen through a batch of dough, and says we will find his presence in simple everyday sustenance of bread and wine. Radically simple. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Way to Heaven

Eternity is with us, inviting our contemplation perpetually, but we are too frightened, lazy, and suspicious to respond: too arrogant to still our thought, and let divine sensation have its way.  –Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People

Those who see heaven as the prize awaiting us for living right (whatever that means) miss the wonderful freedom of living in heaven right now. Evelyn Underhill reminds us that what keeps us from experiencing eternity now are our own self-limiting attitudes of fear, laziness, suspicion and arrogance.

Fear may manifest itself in our unwillingness to relinquish our agendas, possessions and our security to “let divine sensation have its way.” We come to Christ, not laying ourselves at his feet, but with a list of prayer requests, if not for us, for others. Intercessory prayer is good, but what makes it good is not the result it garners but the way it softens our hearts to be compassionate toward others. When we question whether we are “praying right” that may be a sign that our prayer is about manipulating God rather than communion with God.

Our attempts to control people, situations or even God keep us in a state of anxiety. We even want to control what others think of us, so we create a life pattern of trying to meet the expectations of others. This way of living means that we are without any rootedness, for expectations are a constantly moving target. There is no freedom in such a way of living. Whether motivated by fear or arrogance, it’s impossible to still our thought when we think we have to keep up appearances, control outcomes or meet unattainable standards.

Some will say, “How can I trust that what I call divine sensation is not just me seeking to dress my thoughts and actions in divine garb?” This takes discipline—the discipline of study, silence, and daily examen (the practice of reviewing one’s day to assess how and when one was aware or unaware of God’s presence and guidance and whether or not one’s words and actions were Christlike). These may not seem terribly productive to us, and certainly we will not see instant results. That is why it takes discipline. The weeds of the world’s distractions will return again and again. We have to keep pulling them up if we choose the discipline of loving God.

Ad hoc study and silence, practiced only when one thinks about it, is not discipline and will not result in an ability to trust divine sensation. We have to enter into discipline because we love God, not because we want to see results. When we love God, the discipline itself brings us joy because it is our gift to the one who loves us. We love God for who God is, not for what God can do for us.

Discipline is what leads us to freedom, not because we fulfill items on a checklist but because we give up our desire to control outcomes. And when we are free, heaven—eternity—is here and now!