Tag Archives: peace

Sighs Too Deep – Like a Cat

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness;
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

                                                                                                         Romans 8:26

Like a cat

on soft pawsSeal on lap
you come
turning
settling.
The weight
of you
silences me.
Words scatter
fall apart
crumbling leaves
at my feet.

The refrigerator hums.
We breathe.

 

I find I am increasingly drawn into silence in response to the latest outrage, injustice, violence, or suffering, which lifts its terror, anger, and sorrow for a day or two, until it is drowned out by other cries, other horrors.

This silence, like a cat, is neither retreat, nor numbness. It is not denial, nor shrinking fear. Rather, it is a persistent and irresistible summons.

The silence owns me, abides in me, and will have its way with me. So I consent. I stop trying to be efficient and productive. I stop trying to understand, to explain, or defend.

I surrender.
I hold silence.

 

Perhaps you will find yourself similarly drawn and join me in holding silence in this season of waiting and hope. Some of us need to do this. That kitten is just waiting for you to sit down.

The Father spoke one Word,
which was his Son,christ-icon-mt-athos
and this Word
he speaks
always in eternal silence,
and in silence
must it be heard
by the soul.

–  St. John of the Cross

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Blood on My Hands – A Reflection on Love and Violence

If the Judeo-Christian ferment is not dead, it must be engaged in an obscure struggle against deeper and deeper layers of the essential complicity between violence and human culture.    Rene Girard

Only a few weeks ago on Easter Sunday we sang “The strife is o’er, the battle done; the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun: Alleluia!”

Something in me wants to say: Not!

Just what kind of strife is over, what sort of battle won? The constant drumbeat of war and strife seem to drown out any victory for life. Battles erupt and spread through the world like wild fire. Reading Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw’s  Jesus for President , I came across these statistics about defense spending:

The US arsenal is the largest stockpile of nuclear weaponry in the world, equivalent to over 150,000 Hiroshima bombs. US military budget is over 450 billion per year, and it would take the combined budgets of the next 15 countries to equal that of the US (Russia is the next biggest spender at around 70 billion, China at 50 billion, and the entire “Axis of Evil” is less than 10 billion. (p.178)

Then last week we learned of a decisive, courageous act of violence which seeks, if not to end the war on terror, to seriously debilitate it, while attempting to obtain justice for those so horribly wronged.

On the surface I felt a mixture of relief, satisfaction, and a sober resignation to the violence. As the days passed I kept asking, was not the state sponsored violent execution, to which the Son of God surrendered, supposed to end all this? Why are we still killing each other in the effort to preserve peace, when we have already killed the Prince of Peace who shook off death and rose to proclaim the forgiveness of sins?

Christians declare that in Christ’s death and resurrection a momentous, wrenching, earth shattering shift occurred in our relationship with God and with one another. So why is it business as usual? Sin, evil, resentment, lust, greed, war continue to thrive and spread.

With the Judeo-Christian ferment still strong in my heart, the killing of Osama Bin Laden has engaged me in that obscure struggle, which anthropologist Girard describes, against the deeper and deeper layers of the essential complicity between violence and human culture.

The very fact that I may live safely on a quiet street in Kansas, as I leisurely consider such questions, is a tip of my hat to countless individuals whose struggles, deaths, and acts of preemptive and retaliatory violence, have helped to preserve the peace I enjoy.

That peace was troubled six weeks ago, when I woke in the night terrified by a dream. I was staying in the home I grew up in, where I had been sorting through family treasures, photos, records, and sixty years of lives well lived. My father is deceased and mom now lives in a care center. My siblings and I are preparing the home for sale. I was in town that weekend to attend the auction of my father’s collection of Indian relics. The stone tools, arrow points, ax heads, and weapons had been his passion, a focus of a life-long study of the early people who lived in Southeast Iowa and whose history extends back thousands of years.

The dream was deeply disturbing. A demonic, ghostly presence is in the house moving about. A small white poodle lies under a table. Suddenly its fur turns bright red, like blood, as though a red light were shining upon it. I place my hands on the side of the dog where the light was shining. When I pull them away, my palms have real blood on them.

I want to show my hands to my brother. Then suddenly a terrifying presence is with me. I scream very loudly and in screaming, cough up a wad of phlegm, which flies out of my mouth into the air. I think to myself my brother will be here soon, and I wake myself up screaming.

Good grief, I thought, shaken, what was that about? As I lay fearful and pondering the blood on my hands, the blood seemed to change in my memory from wet blood to a small rust colored stain in the center of the palm of each hand.

 

I got up and walked through the house, past the stacks of old photographs and the large ornate memorial pictures commemorating the deaths of various family members. A blue willow plate that traveled in a covered wagon with my Great Aunt Ethel sat among old family dishes. A china chamber pot leaned next to a pile of scrap books containing local history.

The process of closing a home is disorienting, chaotic, and uprooting. Objects handled by generations are stirred up, turned over, lifted out of boxes, hauled down from attics, and exposed to the light. Once Dad took me to Indian mounds under excavation. I remember walking along a wooden platform that circled the mound and looking down at the tiers of the remains.

There are whispered stories of violence in my family history – suicide, murder, conflict, suffering, grief. Who am I to rail against war, when my hands have blood on them in ways both known and unknown to me? My civilized life is complicit with violence. In fact “civilization” stands on the shoulders of violence and layers upon layers of sacred bones.

 

The story does not end here, nor the gift of my dream. Though the roots of terror and violence run deep in the human heart, succumbing to violence to end violence is only a temporary solution.

Anthropologist Gil Bailie writes:

Violence is immensely compelling. Those who witness spectacles of violence can be seduced by its logic even when – perhaps especially when – they are morally scandalized by it. Violence is labyrinthine. It turns back on itself in serpentine ways. The paths that seem to exit from its madness so often lead deeper into its maze.
… We may no longer be able and willing to turn violence into religion [as in primitive approaches to violence, such as human sacrifice and scapegoating], but neither are we able to turn the other cheek, and the conventional way of resisting evil causes the contagion of evil to spread, perpetrated by those who are most determined to eradicate it. How to resist evil in ways that prevent its spread is now history’s most fundamental dilemma. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled – Humanity at the Crossroads, (p. 90)

How do we resist evil in ways that prevent its spread and prevent our own vulnerability to its contagion?  For the followers of Christ, the Way is in the manger and hanging from the cross. The Way is meeting us as we remember Christ’s suffering and resurrection. The Way is obedience to the greatest commandment: to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. (Matthew 22:37)

Perfect love is what casts out terror, not more terror.

There is no terror in love. But perfect love drives out terror, because terror has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
                                                                        I John 4: 18.

When our love is divided, when our love is parceled out and diffused among many desires, we are like a branch cut off from the vine. When we succumb to fear and anxiety, we wither, wilt, and die. When other desires stand between our hearts and that supreme Love, the power given to us in the cross of Christ is diluted, blocked, and becomes irrelevant to us.

Cain Leads Abel to Death

After I walked through the house, I went back to bed and a fervent prayer rose up in me. I prayed against that dark presence and for each family member, going back through the generations, all the way to Cain and Abel. I prayed for the ancient people, whose relics had been in my family’s respectful care for close to sixty years. The artifacts, now scattered, rested in unfamiliar hands. I prayed for all my relations, my brothers and sisters throughout time and space. I prayed for their protection, for forgiveness, healing, freedom, and peace. I prayed for their fullest joy in God. I prayed with the authority of my baptism for anything evil to depart and leave these ones alone. I prayed through the victory of Jesus won by his shed blood, once, for all.  I prayed like a house afire for everyone I could think of. Recalling my dream, I not only spit on the devil, I hocked a big loogie. Then I turned over and slept like a baby.

Gil Bailie illuminates the significance of the mysterious redemptive power of the crucifixion and the implications for our time with his anthropological perspective.

Humans in crisis easily succumb to social contagions that end in violence that is accompanied by a primitive form of religious intoxication.  In the final analysis, the only alternative to the simulated transcendence of social contagion and violence is another experience of religious transcendence, one at the center of which is a God who chooses to suffer violence rather than sponsor it. (Violence Unveiled – Humanity at the Crossroads, p 66)

“Put down your weapon!” Jesus told Peter, when Peter drew his sword to defend his master and severed the soldier’s ear.

The choice to suffer violence, rather than sponsoring it, is made possible by an extraordinary love for God, the Transcendent Power of the Universe. This is the greatest and first commandment. Only as this is followed may the second commandment of love for neighbor and self be fully embraced. For it is love for God, which gives one the strength for suffering the sins of others, the capacity to forgive, the faith to believe in the unseen possibility of new life, and the hope to endure. Love of God bestows the deeply sustaining and transforming inner communion with Love itself. Love of God releases the rushing river of redemption to flow through us into the world.

.

We are all complicit. We all have blood on our hands. The strife is o’er, the battle done; the victory of life is won for those who have suffered, along with Jesus, the crucifixion in themselves of all that is not love. These carry the stain of the blood of the Lamb in their palms.

Love wins.

For love is
as strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.   Song of Songs 8: 6b-7

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Rx for a Crisis

The man, unemployed for two years now, leans his elbows on the kitchen table, puts his face in his hands and weeps.
Be still and know that I am God.

The family, numb with shock and grief, stare into the abyss the sudden death of their child has opened before them.

Be still and know that I am God.

The couple – run ragged with work, child care, and keeping up with the Joneses – gaze across the room at each other and wonder how their love turned to resentment and anger.

Be still and know that I am God.

All the while the nation’s public discourse rages on with the clamor and clang of opinions, self righteous indignation, and attack.
Be still and know that I am God.
So much of our lives seems to be fueled by fear and hyperbole, or hype, as the word has morphed into. The fear and anxiety tend to compress our perception into narrow tunnel vision and demand that we act immediately, often at the expense of reasoned consideration, and gathering all the facts. Hyperbole, the fetching sister of fear, exaggerates, escalates, and glamorizes her brother. We feed on sensationalism, scandal, and worst case scenarios.
In the context of this culture of fear and hype, when we encounter the pain and loss of being human, in whatever form it shows up in our life, we may feel overwhelmed, isolated, or ashamed.
Our times are difficult. We face as individuals, as a nation, and as global citizens immense challenges. People are suffering. The planet is suffering. We must act and act wisely. Will our action, our response to the crises we face, rise from our faith or our fear? Will the choices we make be fueled by hysteria, anger, discouragement, or the wisdom and grace of something greater and mightier than we?
Be still and know that I am God. Well, what good will that do? Is that going to improve the job opportunities in my town? Is that going to bring back our son from the grave? Is that going to bring back the love and joy we used to know as a couple?
No. It may or may not change the crisis you are facing. However, it will change you. Absolutely. Being still and knowing that God is God and you are God’s creation will shift how you perceive yourself in the midst of your crisis, and how you perceive the crisis itself.
Being still and knowing that God is God will establish you in the depths of God’s Being within you. Here you will discover a strange peace that doesn’t make sense, that passes all understanding as St. Paul wrote (Philippians 4:7). You will begin to live and act and make decisions from that deep well of peace, rather than your fear and anxiety.
The New English Bible translates this verse from Psalm 46 in this way: Let be then: learn that I am God. Let things be as they are, stop strategizing, blaming, figuring out solutions, or how to get even. Stop your action and thinking. Be in that energetic stillness that is God’s presence within you.
In doing this you will learn that God dwells within you, speaks within you, and is moving in your life and world. You are not in charge, never have been. You do not have to figure this all out and get it right somehow. Relax. Trust.
God is our shelter and our refuge,
a timely help in trouble;
so we are not afraid when the earth heaves
and the mountains are hurled into the sea,
when its waters seethe in tumult
and the mountains quake before his majesty.
There is a river whose streams gladden the city of God
which the Most High has made his holy dwelling;
God is in that city; she will not be overthrown,
And he will help her at the break of day.
The Lord of hosts is with us,
the God of Jacob is our refuge.    from Psalm 46


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Thanksgiving Reverie

My ninety six year old mother dozes in her chair. Her toast remains half eaten on the tray. The dog sleeps at her side.

Frost last night. Now bright morning sun streams through the windows. The refrigerator hums. Outside the gnarly cedar with its silvered bark shelters the house. When did it get so tall?

Memories – laughter, faces of loved ones, snatches of conversation, four dogs romping in the back yard, good food – play in the mind.

Today is Black Friday, the make or break retail sales day of the U.S. economy. Only twenty eight days until Christmas.

There is no rush here. No need to shop.

All is calm
All is bright
Round yon mother and dog.

Here in this old house on Madison Street, whatever it was we thought we needed to do has given way to the art of being – of watching the leaf shadows play on the trunk of the cedar, and peering long into the deep blue sky.

The mother dozes. The dog stirs, turns on his side. His breath is slow and deep.

The air is tender and mild. Nothing to disturb the flow of grace.
Relax. Christmas already came here a long time ago.

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A Calm and Quiet Soul

It is a simple psalm – the shortest in the Hebrew Scriptures, only three verses, easy to miss. It is a little announcement, a tweet, a facebook status post:

 O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,C, Co 1987 002
   my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
   too great and too marvelous for me.                             
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
   like a weaned child with its mother;
   my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
   from this time on and for evermore. Psalm 131

The psalmist does not offer his knowledge, answers, opinions, strategies, outrage, or some new technological advance. He does not blast his enemies and ask for God’s vengeance. He does not recite a litany of his sorrows, nor does he plead for mercy. He does not even offer God praise or thanksgiving. He simply posts a calm and quiet soul and out of his serenity emerges a message to his friends, Israel: hope in God.

Here is no flashy super hero, no glamorous celebrity, no clever talking head striding up to the microphone to silence opponents with verbal repartee and inflammatory speech. Instead we find a balm for all wounds and a cool hand to smooth out the furrows in the forehead of a distracted, feverish world.

Peace is polite and unassuming. It does not force its way on others or announce itself with strobe lights and blaring headlines. With the irony, sarcasm, and impatience so endemic in our world, we may think, “Big deal. So the guy’s calmed himself down. Whatever.”

It is easy to miss the importance of this. I think some of you know how much work it takes to create and maintain inner peace. You have an idea of the courage and selflessness a calm and quiet heart requires. Such peace is won by the bloody confrontation with inner truth and the battle with all in oneself that resists or thwarts reconciliation.

D, Co 1987A calm heart is the heart of a weaned child, no longing gasping and grasping for nourishment from its mother. The psalmist has mastered his appetites and addictions. He has grown up and can return to the source of life free of the demanding temptations of ambition, restlessness, and narcissism.

The psalmist does a startling thing here. Notice that he is not blaming, or damning, or threatening to sue whatever has upset him or caused him to despair. We do not know what has set him about calming his heart. What we do know is that he has assumed responsibility for his inner peace and his outward response to the world. He does not hold others accountable for his difficulty. He is reconciled with his own experience. His soul is at rest and his desire for his friends is the hope he has found in God.

A calm and quiet soul is a great lake of strength and serenity, a pool of stillness reflecting reality where many come to drink. Yet the cacophony of the postmodern world has little appreciation for such souls. These are hidden folk with no desire for their five minutes of fame. They remain rooted and grounded in the soil of love, flexible, bending with the winds of change, and standing tall in tough times. I have known a few. I want to be someone like that more than anything. Don’t you?

For the past couple of weeks I’ve had the “eye twitch.” You know, that annoying  hysterical jerk of the eyelid? I’ve been so tired. I have not been respecting my limits. My sites have been set too high. I have been occupying myself with things too great for me.

It is a simple psalm. It is really a lullaby. Sing it to yourself this week.

 DC, Co 1987 1

If you alone find inner peace, thousands around you will be saved.
– St. Seraphim of Sarov

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The Miracle of Gratitude

woman praying 002Feeling discouraged? Despair breathing down your neck? Are you trapped in a painful situation with no way out?

Count your blessings. I know. It sounds lame. You need a whole life makeover. You need to win the lottery, find a new job, or discover the cure for cancer. Humor me. Do it anyway. Hold up your ten fingers, or however many you have. Count out loud one blessing for each finger.

Now that you are warmed up, take out a piece of paper and get to work filling it up with things you are grateful for. Just put down whatever pops in your head. Keep at it. Include the most specific details – water actually flowed from my faucet at the flick of my wrist when I was thirsty this morning; I can see the mourning dove pecking corn outside my window; my cup of coffee tastes delicious – dark, aromatic, and hot.

A sure way to find hope in a dark time is to count one’s blessings. This simple spiritual practice focuses our attention not on what has happened or what might happen, but on what we can discover to be thankful for in this moment. Gratitude awakens mindfulness, which calms and focuses us on simple pleasures and the miracle of life itself.

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity…. It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.  Melodie Beattie

I can recall some pretty anguished nights in my life. I flailed about rehearsing imagined scenarios, practicing speeches to give to various people, and writing scary science fiction. To what end? Nothing productive. I only became more and more entangled in my own hysterical drama. Some of us come to a point where we are being eaten up by worry and fear. This can be the key to a wonderful discovery. Right about when we say, I can’t live like this anymore, we discover we do not have to. Peace is a choice. We have the freedom through an act of our wills to choose peace of mind.

So much about the spiritual life and happiness in general depends upon where we put our focus. We get to choose what thoughts we entertain and which ones we sweep out the door. At the same time there is tremendous competition among multiple influences to occupy the center stage of our minds. Consider for a moment who or what influences are in charge of your mind? The mantras of our consumer culture? Some nasty critical, negative inner voice? A whiny, fearful, abandoned child? A tangled root of bitterness?

The psalmist puts it succinctly, “Do not fret – it only leads to evil.” Psalm 37: 8. Spiritual teachers of many traditions teach the practice of gratitude. Jesuit priest Jeanne Pierre de Caussade, who died in 1751, advises: The great principle of the interior life lies in peace of the heart: it must be preserved with such care that the moment it is in danger everything else should be abandoned for its re-establishment, just as when a house is on fire, one leaves everything to extinguish it.. . .  And the reason of this is that great peace and tranquility of spirit alone give the soul great strength to achieve all that God wills while trouble and disquiet turn the soul into a languishing invalid. 

De Caussade’s image of the languishing invalid cracks me up. That is exactly what I become as I succumb to fear and anxiety:  infected with negativity, unable to make clear decisions, confined to a bed of worry.

If the only prayer you ever pray is thank you, that would suffice, wrote Meister Eckhart. It seemed to work for Jesus. Remember that embarrassing moment when there were only two fish and five loaves and a huge hungry crowd to feed? The disciples quickly turned into languishing invalids. Jesus takes what he has, lifts his eyes to heaven, and gives thanks. After everyone had enough, they filled twelve baskets with leftovers.

That was Jesus’ miracle. Why don’t you go work a few of your own today?

 Praying hands

 

 

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Invitation to Silence

Lake and leaves 

 Prayer of Thomas Merton

I beg you to keep me in this silence so that I may learn from it
the word of your peace
and the word of your mercy
and the word of your gentleness to the world:
and that through me perhaps your word of peace
may make itself heard
where it has not been possible for anyone to hear it for a long time.

 

 Tomorrow is Hermit Day, Sabbath – a day of solitude and silence. No phone, email, social networking, television, radio, or gadding about doing and consuming.

 A day of fasting and withdrawal from the addictive worship of the gods of productivity and commerce, the altars of words, the energy of anxiety, and the illusions of personal power.

Somebody has to do it.
You come too.

Perhaps you and the rest of us will hear something we have not been able to hear for a long time.