Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Perfection: A Matter of Heart

Perfection, then, is clearly not achieved simply by being naked, by the lack of wealth or by the rejection of honours, unless here is also that love whose ingredients the apostle described and which is to be found solely in purity of heart. Not to be jealous, not to be puffed up, not to act heedlessly, not to seek what does not belong to one, not to rejoice over some injustice, not to plan evil—what is this and its like if not the continuous offering to God of a heart that is perfect and truly pure, a heart kept free of all disturbance?

I read this quote in a book of daily wisdom from contemporary and ancient monastics. It is a restating of Paul’s most famous writing, his words about love in 1 Corinthians 13. Though Paul does not use the word perfection in that chapter that is so familiar to us, to love and live with a pure heart could be a good definition of perfection.

Often, our focus is on achieving outward perfection. We want to be thought well of by others and we may act to achieve that end rather than from the desire to love God well by cultivating a pure heart. I know I have sometimes acted in a way not in accordance with the desire of my heart because I wanted to present a good outward appearance. Yet the dissonance within, created by going against the grain of my heart’s intuition, did violence to my soul.

We know from scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments that God is more concerned with the state of one’s heart than with actual deeds done. You can cross all the spiritual ‘T’s and dot all the spiritual ‘I’s and leave God unimpressed. The prophets chastised the people to attend to their hearts rather than cover all the bases with their sacrifices, and Jesus spoke of those who clean the outside of the cup but leave the inside full of filth.

Why do we give more weight to outward acts rather than attending to the state of our hearts? I believe there are several reasons. Pride is a strong force, and we can be recognized by others as “good people” based on what we do, even if we harbor hatred and bitterness within. Ease is another motive—it’s a lot easier to do an outward something, even something difficult, than to commence the long path of inward change and growth, which requires much discipline. I’ve encountered many who, when challenged to begin a practice of self-reflection, look within, dislike what they see, and choose not to go any further down that path. In her book, The Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila speaks of this propensity with colorful metaphorical language. She talks about the snakes, vipers and venomous reptiles we encounter as we begin the journey inward, and how we have to persevere to get past these.

The most important work we can do for God is the work of allowing our hearts to be changed. It is through purity of heart that our outward acts become pleasing to God. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Our Inherent Interconnectedness

Sometimes life lessons come from the simplest items. Recently for me, it was an apple core. Let me explain.

On Wednesdays, I bring my lunch to work. The schedule for that day makes it difficult to go out for lunch and we have a wonderful courtyard with tables and chairs, flowers, and abundant shade. I enjoy being outside anyway, so it’s always a pleasant break in the day.

Last Wednesday, I noticed an apple core in the chair next to mine. I bring apples most weeks, and place the core at the base of a plant, since I know the core will compost. A squirrel knew it had found a treat, carried it to the table and sat in a chair like a person to dine! While I didn’t get to see the actual event, I enjoyed the mental image it brought forth.

On Tuesday mornings, we have a service of morning prayer in our prayer center. Many mornings I enjoy sipping my coffee prior to prayer while looking out the windows of the prayer center. A fence of brick lattice is visible outside the windows, and the windows also overlook the courtyard. I often see squirrels and birds, and when the season and weather cooperate, I get to see the sun hit the side of our sanctuary building. There is a particular spot on the brick fence that is often littered with acorn shells, evidence that a squirrel has had a meal there.

When I looked out the window yesterday, there was an apple core in that spot! I laughed out loud, thinking about how much my lunch leftovers are being appreciated by our church’s nearest neighbors. It was a reminder, a lesson for me about how all creation is connected, that every act we take affects others, whether we are aware of it or not. We know it if we remember our science lessons—the trees produce oxygen we need to breathe, and we produce carbon dioxide that the trees need to breathe. Yet we don’t always live like we know this, or else we would be more careful about our environment.

This is only one example of how our lives depends on the lives of everything and everyone else. We are dependent on one another far more than many of us realize. People you will never meet made your clothes, tended and harvested your food and assembled most of the products you use every day. When we act as if some people don’t matter, as if they are disposable, we harm ourselves, not only our way of life but also our souls.

All we do, for good, for ill, or simply unknowingly, has a ripple effect, just as we are affected by the actions, beliefs and choices of others. An apple-eating squirrel reminded me of that. May we all be more aware of our interconnectedness and live every day with care, remembering that our neighbors include all of creation.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Three Haiku from Ireland

On Easter Monday, I traveled to Ireland for a writing retreat, giving my blog a rest while generating fresh ideas for future posts. Today I offer three haiku written in the ruins of the church named for St. Colman Mac Duach.

Ancient prayer grows
from the stone. Small fern speaks life
into hopeful hearts.

Warmh of holiness.
Sanctuary of silence.
Eternity speaks.

I offer my heart
on this ancient altar as
prayers seep from stones.