I had just gone to our Recreation Center for a little run. It was nothing special; going for a run is something I have done for decades now. Granted the years have slowed the pace of the run. In fact, there are times when it surely seems like the run is masquerading as a walk! But that’s ok; I’m still moving.
It also is not unusual to find a variety of college students doing various things in the Rec Center, as we call it. Part of the joy of going there to exercise is to be with the younger ones who are in the prime of their lives. Most of them are so fit and healthy, they rightly feel on top of the world. I don’t envy them; I hope they stay on top of their world for a very long time. I can’t even see the top of the world anymore, but that’s ok. I’m still moving.
Then I noticed a group of hurdles being placed on the track. Obviously some of the hurdlers were preparing for their practice. I have seen this scene countless times, but suddenly an analogy popped into my mind. Life is like the hurdles’ race. Not a bad metaphor, I thought. It is similar to the metaphor that the apostle Paul used in the New Testament when he talked about life as a race. I know there have been many metaphors for life. A favorite one has been the journey. Life is a journey. Pilgrimage is another favorite in spiritual literature. You probably have heard of other ways to describe life.
As I continued to exercise, I thought some about the metaphor of the hurdles’ race for life. As with all metaphors, there are limits to their usefulness. But they are helpful; so let’s pursue this one. The easiest connection to make between the hurdles on a track and life’s hurdles is how they must somehow be jumped. The hurdles on a track are fairly easy, in the sense that they are well spaced and that you see them coming.
As a hurdler prepares for the race, he or she waits for the gun to signal the start. When the gun fires, off the runners go. They build up speed very quickly and this actually aids the process of jumping the hurdles. In fact, the hurdler goes so fast that he or she does not even seem to jump over the hurdle. Instead they glide over. If you watch a really good hurdler, you can hardly see them go over. They are going so fast when the approach the hurdle, they seem simply to step over it as if it is not there.
Because the hurdles are well spaced, the hurdler takes each next hurdle in stride---without breaking stride. The hurdles are all the same height, which makes hurdling very predictable. No one ever messes with the spacing or the height. And obviously this is where the analogy of the hurdles as a metaphor of life breaks down.
Life does have its hurdles. I suppose life’s hurdles start popping up when we are only children. Not all childhoods go easily. Kids get sick, get taunted at school, etc. And then there are the teenage years. Any of us with memories know those are not carefree times! Adulthood often is replete with hurdles---financial, relationships, careers, etc. Sometimes the hurdles are momentous. In fact, we can be tempted to despair sometimes. But we must move on or we are done for---dead.
Like the hurdles on the track, life’s hurdles have to be negotiated and traversed. Notice I said “traversed,” instead of merely “jumped.” Some of life’s hurdles are too big or daunting to jump. But we need to get around them, so part of life’s journey is figuring out how to negotiate a hurdle that simply is too big to jump. This is where human courage, ingenuity, determination, and sometimes, community come into play.
When words like these are used---words like courage, ingenuity, determination, community---I contend that we have introduced the spiritual. These are words of the human spirit. They may not yet be “God words,” but they are spirit words. For me “spirit” is the animating force or energy that propels us forward through life. Spirit provides the energy and ingenuity to negotiate life’s hurdles.
I would like to think that God is behind and within all of the human spirit that gets exercised as we run our race or complete our journey. In my theology it is not necessary for someone to profess a belief in God to have God present in his or her life. Insofar as each of us has an animating spirit, I affirm that spirit is somehow being fed from the wellspring of the very Spirit of God. God’s being and presence in the world is not contingent on my believing it.
Of the spirit words used above, let’s focus for a moment on community. Life may feel like an individual race---being up to me to win it or lose. With that image I do have to clear all the hurdles myself. On the contrary, I believe most important life races actually involve community. I am eternally grateful to my fellow hurdlers for their presence, encouragement and often hand to help me negotiate my personal hurdles.
Friends Who Sing
I enjoy reading Thomas Merton. In many ways Merton’s life is so different than my life. And yet so much of what he says makes sense to me. And so often what he says helps me think about my own life and how I am trying to make sense out of my life. I suspect Merton speaks to so many people because he experienced so much in his life. Merton lived through both big wars of the 20th century and, then, was active through the Vietnam War. He was an unlikely person to join a rigorist monastery in the middle of Kentucky. But again, he made that experience something that spoke to people well beyond a Catholic monastery. And he still speaks to people long after his untimely death in 1968.
In a very real sense I consider Merton a friend. I never met him, although I do know and am friends with people who did know him. I think the idea of friendship is a good way to enter the world of spirituality. Friendships are relationships that reveal so much about who we are, what we think, and to what we aspire.
I am sure my take on friendships is what made me stop abruptly when I read the following line from Merton’s book, Confessions of a Guilty Bystander. Merton wrote, "There are people one meets in books or in life whom one does not merely observe, meet, or know. A deep resonance of one’s entire being is immediately set up with the entire being of the other (Cor ad cor loquitur---heart speaks to heart in the wholeness of the language of music; true friendship is a kind of singing)." These words rang true to my experience. I began to think about the people I have met in the books I have read. Merton counts as one such person who fits this quotation.
All of us have met a large number of people either in real life or in the books and other things we have read. I wonder how many different people I have read on my way to getting a doctoral degree so that I could teach? It must be thousands. I have observed countless people in my life. I have met many of those folks. And I even have come to know quite a healthy number of people. Add these to all the authors I have read and the number has to be quite large.
But then there is another, much smaller, number of people. These are the ones with whom Merton says there is a deep resonance. As he wrote, there is a deep resonance of our own being with the entire being of the other. I can think of a few people who fit this experience. I like the word and the idea of “resonance.” To resonate means there is a harmony---a synchronicity.
Merton puts it well when he moves to the Latin phrase, cor ad cor loquitur---“heart speaks to heart.” I recognized immediately that he was referring to the coat of arms for John Henry Cardinal Newman, a nineteenth English churchman. Newman was one of Merton’s favorite figures. That is a great way to express the deep resonance that happens between two people who meet soulfully.
However, it is how Merton elaborates this, which I find intriguing. Heart speaks to heart, says Merton, in the wholeness of the language of music. It is interesting to think about music having “language.” Certainly music does speak to us. And the kind of music that speaks “heart to heart” provides the language of this deeply resonating experience of two people meeting at the level of soul.
Then Merton finishes the amazing sentence when he says that true friendship is a kind of singing. When I read this, I had a double response. On the one hand, I felt like I knew exactly what he was talking about. I have true friendships where there was a kind of singing. And that is said by one with little musical talent! But the resonance and relationship of this spiritual friendship was musical---it was a kind of singing. On the other hand, I was not sure I had a clue what Merton meant. True friendship is a kind of singing. What does he mean?
What I do know is singing is so much richer that merely speaking. Singing adds melody and tonality to the true friendship. Probably the common language on the street talks about people “being on the same page.” That is such a bland way of putting a relationship. Compare that to Merton’s idea of true friendship is a kind of singing and we see the difference.
I understand true friendship in two ways. In the first place true friendship characterizes the relationship Christians have with Jesus or with the Divinity Itself. It is not without reason Jesus called those disciples “friends.” In this sense true friendship is spiritual friendship with God. And surely this is characterized well by a kind of singing.
The other understanding of true friendship is the relationship that many of us are graced to have with other spiritual people. I can count a few people who have graced my life in this way. We have a deep resonance that can only be called soulful. There is a spiritual harmony that results from our soulful relationship. When we are together, we are indeed friends who sing.
The Importance of Image
I try to follow various people I respect to see what kinds of things they are doing with regards to spirituality. One of the people I respect is Richard Rohr. While I don’t agree with everything he writes, I find his Franciscan spirit resonates with my Quaker spirit. He and I are about the same age, so it makes it easy to understand some of his concerns and issues. Neither one of us deals with teenage problems any more!
He has the ability to look at a common issue and see it in a way I might not ever look at it. Perhaps some of that is due to our different backgrounds and experience. I recall Rohr talks some about growing up in Kansas. That might not be too different than growing up in rural Indiana. But he also talks about his caring German, Roman Catholic family. My family certainly was caring enough. I have no complaints on that score. But growing up a Quaker in pre-Vatican II world surely is quite different. My family was fairly regular in church attendance on Sunday morning, but that was about it when it came to religious evidence in our lives. In retrospect I would say that we were good, but I am not sure we were Christian in the way I might define it today. But I am sure my parents would have said they were Christian. And that brings me to the words from Rohr with which I connect.
In one of his meditation pieces Rohr says, “Your image of God creates---or defeats you.” That is a pretty powerful line. Any time someone talks about defeating me, that person gets my attention! I don’t mind the creating part---that actually is quite good. That sounds positive and I am all for positive! But defeating is less attractive. In fact, I have gone to some lengths at times to avoid defeat.
For Rohr to tie my creating and defeating to my image of God is a bold step, but I might not be sure how that works. So the next line Rohr writes helps in my understanding. He adds that, “There is an absolute connection between how you see God and how you see yourself and the whole universe.” Once again, I find this very intriguing. Not only does Rohr say there is a connection between how I see God and how I see myself. Rohr says this is an absolute connection. I understand that to me the connection between these two is fail proof---guaranteed, he might confirm.
At first blush I realize I probably never thought about whether there is a connection between how I see God and how I see myself. I am sure many folks would be quick to doubt or, even, deny this contention of Rohr. But that likely would be nothing more than a defensive move. I suspect most of us think we have a pretty accurate view of ourselves. We feel like we know ourselves pretty well. And I also suspect that we assume that our view of ourselves resonates very closely with how others see us, too. So we have an honest and accurate view of ourselves. Finally most of us probably do not think this self-view has much or anything to do with how we see God.
“Wrong,” says Rohr! Let’s add one final sentence to see how Rohr wants to make his point. He says that, “The word ‘God’ first of all is a stand-in for everything---reality, truth, and the very shape of your universe.” I can imagine some people saying, “that’s not my view of God!” I am not quick to dismiss Rohr. I think that he is on to something.
I do think how we view reality is linked to our view of God. For example, if I think the world is orderly, friendly, etc., then I certainly connect this with God. The idea of truth is even easier for me. Most believers would latch on to that New Testament idea that God is truth---indeed, truth with a capital “T.” As such, God is the shape of my universe.
And this is where Rohr is sneaky and a real challenge. If there is an absolute connection between how I view God and how I view myself, then my whole being is at stake---I am either created or defeated. However, I wonder if Rohr might not have it reversed. I wonder if the real sequence is not this way: the way I see myself is absolutely connected to the way I see God? I think this is probably true, although it may be difficult to see or admit.
If I am honest, I think it is true for me. And I am also sure I would not have seen this in my earlier life. I would have assumed God is quite different than I am. But the longer I have lived and experienced life, the more I think I do see the absolute connection between my self-view and how I see God. And now my real task is to make sure that I see both myself and God in such a light to make this whole process creative.
I want to view my God as a caring, loving Spirit, which is at work in the world to bring justice and inaugurate a realm of peace and joy. And I want just as much to view myself in the same way---to be involved in a ministry of care and love. I want to be involved in the creative process of bringing justice and being a harbinger of peace and joy.
Just Pushing Rocks
I read an interesting recent article in an online newspaper. It was written by Bill Keller, a regular writer for the New York Times. Keller wrote about a book of poetry which was published. Apparently the poetry is not all that good, but the story behind the poetry is wonderful. Hence, it is really a story about John Borling. Keller puts the story in its context when he says, “Borling’s poems were tapped out in code, letter by letter, on the walls of a wretched cell in Hanoi during his six and a half years as a prisoner of war.”
Maybe I am interested in this simply because the story comes from the period of my youth and concerns “my war.” Sadly it seems, every American generation has “their war.” My war happened to be the Vietnam War. I never was sent to Vietnam, so I cannot talk first hand about the experience. I certainly know quite a few people who went and I have shared vicariously some of their experiences.
I cannot imagine being in a prison camp anywhere for six years. That he survived and is sane today is a testament to two miracles. Let’s listen to some details of the story, as it will lead to some spiritual lessons.
I was fascinated by the code to write the poems. It was a code that could be shared in “words” that were spelled out by knocks on the wall. Keller gives us the code that Borling used:
1. A B C D E
2. F G H I J
3. L M N O P
4. Q R S T U
5. V W X Y Z
The code worked in this way. Let’s say you want to “write” the word “bad.” The letter “b” is line one, second letter. So that would be 1.2. The “a” is 1.1 and “d” is 1.4. This is simple, but clever. And apparently Borling and others committed these poems to memory and now they are in this book.
Borling came home in 1973. In 2004 he ran for the senate seat in Illinois, but was beaten soundly by Barak Obama! He has had other ventures in life that seemed like good ideas at the time, but for a variety of reasons came to no good end. I like how Keller concludes this part of the story. “Viewed one way, as Borling will be the first to tell you, his life is a series of defeats.” This should resonate with some of us. Not everyone I know would say life has been wonderful---with no setbacks. We may not have served time in Hanoi Hilton, but we have had our own prisons.
Apparently one of Borling’s favorite literary pieces is Albert Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus.” I know this story. The Greek hero is condemned to roll a huge stone to the top of a mountain, only to quite make it, have it roll down and start all over again. Undaunted, Borling says, “My view is that our job is to get the rock up and over the hill. And once you do, the rock rolls down the other side, and what do you see? You see another hill. The essence of life is really just pushing rocks.” I laughed out loud!
I thought about it more and figure that he might be correct. Spiritually I would say that life is service. Service is like rolling the rock up the hill or mountain. The real question is not whether you succeed, but did you serve? That is what Jesus and all the other major religious figures ask us to do. Ask Mother Theresa in her Calcutta slum! Did she succeed or did she simply serve?
In some ways this is un-American. We always seem to want to win. We want success and anything less is a loser! But spirituality and service are measured in different ways. I am not sure Jesus felt like a winner or a success as he hung on a cross. For all intents and purposes, the Romans had won!
I think Borling and other spiritual sages are correct. The essence of life is really just pushing rocks. This gives me pause. What is my rock or my rocks? Am I pushing them? That is what God asks---just keep pushing the rocks.
Even though I grew up on a farm in Indiana and spent a great deal of time outside, I would not say I am as attuned to nature as one might expect. In some ways it is a little disappointing to realize this and admit it. Of course when I was outside, I was surely aware of the weather. If it is raining, you don’t need a very high IQ to know it is raining! Awareness of the weather, however, does not mean you are generally aware of nature.
Every time I come back to Annie Dillard’s great book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I am reminded of my off-and-on relationship with nature. I realize again how much I miss on a walk across campus. I lament at how unconscious I apparently am so much of the time. At one level, this is sad because it means I am capable of so much more. At another level, it is funny. It is funny because I sometimes think I am fairly aware and, then, realize perhaps I am not as aware as I think I am. Another good opportunity for some humility! Whenever I have the opportunity for some humility, at least I am on a spiritual track again.
Near the end of a chapter called, “Spring,” Dillard quotes Einstein. I have never double-checked the quotation, so I hope he said it. If he did not, then whoever said it has a good idea. “Never lose a holy curiosity,” said Einstein. (122) Clearly, the key word here is “curiosity.” Let’s look at this idea and see how it fits within spirituality.
If you were to look up that word in a dictionary, you would find that curiosity means a desire to know something or to find out something. A curious person is an inquisitive person. I would like to think that most people are curious to an extent. If we watch children, they seem pretty curious by nature. The will explore almost anything. Little ones will put anything in their mouths! Maybe that is when we begin to lose our curiosity, namely, when we outgrow the desire to put things in our mouths!
I think it is ok if we literally get over putting things in our mouths. But if we see it figuratively, we need to be careful not to lose our taste for exploration. Maybe this is the clue to what Einstein means. If we lose our willingness to explore, then we have become settlers. We have settled for what already is. We declare in our own way that we are ok with the routine and the given.
That is not bad. Typically, there is nothing wrong with the given and our routine. More than most people, perhaps, I am a person who values routine. But if I settle for the routine as all there is, then I have lost something important in my life. I have lost the possibility for the novel---the new. I have lost the chance for the different. There is nothing wrong with sameness---I value that. But there is more; there is always difference.
Curiosity is a quest. It is an inquisitiveness for the novel and the different. It is a free choice. Voluntarily my curiosity opens me to a world that is more interesting, more complex, more beguiling that I ever imagined. I hope I never get to the place where I say, “I don’t care.” If I do, I probably have admitted that I am finished growing as a human being. I think we were created for growth. Curiosity is the divine implanted grow impulse.
Having said that, I realize I have just introduced the opening to talk about the adjective Einstein used, namely, “holy.” “Never lose a holy curiosity,” he said. I like the way he puts it. I can understand his use of “holy” in a couple ways. I have already indicated one way we can understand “holy curiosity.” This holy curiosity is the divinely implanted impulse to grow and deepen as human beings. I have already indicated that I could be much more attentive when I am in nature. I could let nature teach me so much more about myself and about my God, the Creator of this amazing world and the unfathomable universes. To settle for my routine and the given in my life is sadly to settle for so little. I have a God to discover and I too often settle for my own little world and my own sorry self.
The other way we can understand “holy curiosity” is to see our curiosity to be wired to desire to know God. We are naturally inquisitive for the Divine. We would be idiots to assume that we are the center of the universe. Any sane person knows that the egocentric person has it all wrong. The trouble is, being egocentric often feels so good---so “god-like!” Again, we would be idiots to set ourselves up as gods and not see the idolatry in doing so!
Our holy curiosity is designed to not fall into temptation, but deliver us to the doorstep of God Itself. We might find that doorstop in the details and intricacies of nature. We might find ourselves approaching the heart of God when we go deep within and find our own hearts. Holy curiosity leads us both without---into the big world out there filled with amazing things. And it leads us deep within---where in the words of a revered Quaker, we find “an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul.” It is there that the holy curiosity delivers us into Holiness Itself.