In one of his many stories from the East, Jesuit Anthony De Mello describes a man being chased by a tiger, coming up to a cliff, then climbing down to catch hold of a small branch jutting out of the rock face.
With the tiger above and thousands of feet below, the man sees berries growing on the branch in his hand. In his final moments he picks one, and as the story goes, it tasted so sweet. At the moment we accept death as inevitable, life takes on fullness and freshness.
As a kid growing up in churches (and even later as an adult), there were frequent announcements for upcoming events like youth camps, retreats, concerts, Christmas pageants, outreach, and so on. Often, it was promised that if you attended, lives would be changed, and indeed some often were.
At conferences or leadership gatherings, one of the most common buzzwords is revival. Embedded in that very term is the idea of returning to a former state, an initial essence or vitality that has been lost.
Several years ago, Fr. Richard Rohr taught a Summer intensive at a nearby Seminary and gave an evening talk as well with a Q&A session.
Among the many topics touched on that night, he explained to a group of Protestants something of how the Franciscan lineage functions within the greater Catholic tradition. He clearly identified with the tradition and was proud of the work of Franciscans both lay and monastic.
There’s this idea in certain circles that we create the world we live in. It’s one of those sources of conflict between the more spiritually minded and the more practically minded.
What about the bombs that drop on innocents. Or the shots fired at the underprivileged. Or the death caused by natural disaster. What about infants that die of disease. Can we just think those away? Can we wish them away? Can we pray those away?
One of the ways that the contemplative path tends to affect change is in interpersonal relationships. This has less to do with any particular relationship, but instead changes the way we relate to the world in general.
In an unconscious state we’re made up of our desires, drives, fears, and anxieties. Our interpersonal relationships become a forum to act those out, to meet our needs.
Traditionally, on Easter Sunday, we identify closely with a person who suffered, died, and rose again. In the Christian tradition, Christ’s resurrection is kind of the whole point.
But often we turn it into a mental story of something out there. We think of it mechanically in a sense, it’s something that happened and if I respond thus and so it means I don’t have to die or go to hell when I die or however we conceive of that. It’s as if a fact we either accept or reject, and that determines our afterlife.
A famous quote in contemplative circles reads “the mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.” What this refers to is our normal tendency to be pulled this way and that way by the incessant stream of unconscious thought.
Instead of using our minds when necessary, we are mostly used by our minds and kept in a kind of mental prison. Some of us nurse and rehearse our resentments, some of us obsess over our never-ending to-do list. Some of us stay steeped in our losses, limitations, unfulfilled needs, dreams, or fears about the future.
I recently had a day where things just seemed out of alignment. I was supposed to teach an evening class on poetry and was struggling to wrap my head around the topic and fashion it into some coherent experience.
The multiple interviews I had lined up for positions I’m looking to fill in my workplace either canceled, postponed, or went poorly. I was away from my normal home office and forgot my phone charger, rushing to my car every hour or so to get a bit more juice. Then I got a call that my son had pink eye and would need to be picked up from school.
Whether in contemplative circles or the culture at large, the terms enlightenment (more antiquated) or awakening (the more contemporary use) carry with them a radical or seemingly unattainable quality, some kind of perpetual “mountaintop experience” of perpetual wisdom and bliss once we’ve broken through. We might think of some distant sage, revered by followers, doling out wisdom untouched by worldly events.
But for most, the experience, at least from the outside, looks far more ordinary. One of the temptations on the spiritual path is always to romanticize or fetishize an entirely other order of life, rather than imagining a transformed version of our existing everyday context.
Late in college, I sat in student housing in Seattle with a fellow English major watching a movie for class. A fall storm moved in and once the movie was over, the rain fell thick on the roof of the second story apartment, the windows vibrating from thunderclap. With a head full of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, I had a sudden impulse. Let’s go for a walk!
It was dark and cold and pouring. We’d be drenched. That, of course, was the point. To situate oneself into the experience of natural intensity, to experience it bodily, with the sense impression of the wet earth and grass, to feel the rain on the coat and the skin, to see it pass through streetlight or passing cars, to hear raindrops ricochet off the concrete. Here was an opportunity for a poetic moment, an intense experience. My companion was more pragmatic: Are you crazy? We’ll get soaked!