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Archive for March, 2020

A MAN IS ON A JOURNEY. . .

We are what we repeatedly do. –Aristotle

If you, gentle reader, have been following my blog these past 8 years you know that I love stories.  And like you, I write and live into and out of my own life-story; I am the ‘author’ and the ‘book’ – an interesting paradox. Like you, I have written things into my life-story that helped me survive so that I could live another day.  Here is a parable [i.e. a teaching story] that the Buddha told his disciples.

A man is on a journey.  He comes to a vast stretch of water.  On this side the shore is dangerous, but on the other side it is safe and without danger.  No boat goes to the other shore which is safe and without danger, nor is there any bridge for crossing over.  The man said to himself: “It would be good therefore if I would gather grass, wood, branches and leaves to make a raft, and with the help of that raft cross safely to the other side.”

 Then that man gathers grass, wood, branches and leaves and makes a raft, and with the help of that raft crosses over safely to the other side, exerting himself with his hands and feet.  Having crossed over and got to the other side, he thinks: “This raft was of great help to me.  With its aid I have crossed safely over to this side.  It would be good if I carry this raft on my head or on my back wherever I go.”

The Buddha then asked his disciples what this man should do with the raft.  After some time, the Buddha then wondered if it would not be wise for the man to say: “The raft has been a great help to me.  Now I can beach it on the shore or let it float away, so I can be on my way.”  Buddha paused again.  Then he smiled that Buddha smile and explained that his own teachings are to be used for crossing over and are not to be carried.  While the lessons are practical and useful and may even seem beautiful, they are to be let go of when the lesson has been learned.

I have carried – and continue to carry – ‘stuff’ with me that at one time I needed in order to survive.  In my life-story, I carry them over from paragraph to paragraph or chapter to chapter even though some of them are now hindrances if not harmful to my growth and development.  It is difficult for me to let go of these – to celebrate them and to mourn their passing – and to move on.  I am reminded of TimO’Brien’s powerful book, The Things They Carried.

What are the ‘rafts’ that I am carrying that no longer serve me?  What are the ‘rafts’ that I am carrying that have morphed from helping me survive to now hindering my growth and development?  What are the ‘rafts’ that I am carrying that have morphed from being life-supporting to life-depleting?

A journey is a person in itself, no two are alike. –John Steinbeck

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REDEEMING EVIL. . .

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. –Edmund Burke

These past few months I have been reflecting upon the Book of Job.  This powerful book is a tap root that challenges Jews, Christians and Muslims (and, I believe ‘others’).  I have also been reflecting upon the ‘Holocaust.’  As I read and reflect I often find connections between the two – Job & the Holocaust.  Recently a name appeared in a piece I was reading about Job and in another piece I was reading about the Holocaust.  The name: Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam.

Rabbi Halberstam writes: The biggest miracle of all is the one that we, the survivors of the Holocaust, after all that we witnessed and lived through, still believe and have faith in the Almighty God, may His name be blessed. This, my friends, is the miracle of miracles, the greatest miracle ever to have taken place.

Once or twice a day for the past two weeks I have taken the time to sit and reflect while I gaze upon a photograph of Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam.  I am looking at his photograph now [see this photo below].

I perceive a hassidic saint, one of those mystical leaders that Judaism has gifted us with.  The Rabbi has a long white beard and is wearing a frock coat.  A gentle smile calls to me.  His smile beckons me to something beyond the here-and-now; to something transcendent.  There is also in his smile something profoundly affirming.  It is as if I were to meet him that he would embrace me both with his smile and his arms and, like all mystics, assure me that ‘All is good!’  AND, that I am an integral part of the ‘All.’

His was no ‘ordinary’ life.  During the Holocaust he was imprisoned and his wife and eleven children were murdered in the concentration camps.  The face I am looking at is, indeed, the face of Job – one who has suffered beyond suffering.

I would have loved to have met this man, this Rabbi, this mystic.  I would have loved to have been able to ask him where that smile and warmth came from given all that he saw and endured during the Holocaust and after.  Surviving the Holocaust he did not despair.  He vowed that he would dedicate his life to saving lives.  He moved to the new State of Israel and founded one of the finest hospitals in Israel.  He held the vision for years and finally his vision became reality.

All that he cared for is embodied in the principles that are the tap roots that feed and sustain this hospital.  It is a religious institution, run according to Jewish law and imbued with a Jewish spirit.  The hospital is also committed to treating all persons – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Palestinians…ALL, literally.

All employees are chosen for their skill and for their love of all human beings.  There is a commitment to relieve human, psychological and spiritual suffering, distress and dis-ease.  The Rabbi’s legacy is an institution and a staff animated by a spirit of compassion, kindness, empathy, healing and love.  It is a place where God is invited to be present to each person and each person is honored as a child of God.

The ‘Song of Songs’ reminds us that ‘Love is as strong as death.’  Here, in this photograph and in the Rabbi’s legacy it was and it is.     

Love one another as I have loved you. –God

Here is the photograph I have been holding these past weeks: Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam

Rabbi Yekutiel Halberstam

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SUE BURNS. . .

Three ways are open to a man who is in sorrow.  He who stands on a normal rung weeps, he who stands higher is silent, but he who stands on the topmost rung converts his sorrow in to song. –Rabbi Menahem Mendel

Gentle Reader.  Every once in a while I read something that calls me to offer it to you in the words of the writer.  What follows is the story of ‘Sue Burns’ as told by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  Rabbi Sacks writes:

“The late Sue Burns suffered from a rare condition called osteosclerosis, progressive deterioration of the spine.  Its effect was devastating.  She was completely unable to stand or sit, even in a wheelchair.  As her condition worsened, she was condemned to spend her life horizontally, permanently confined to bed and in almost constant pain.  More than most she had reason to believe that life had dealt her the unkindest of blows.

I met her on one of my visits to care homes, in this case a centre for those who suffered from the most severe forms of debilitation.  From the first moment I saw her, I realized that Sue was extraordinary.  She greeted me with a radiant smile, like sunshine on a grey day.  It seemed to come from deep within, as if she were celebrating being alive.  At first I could not understand it.  The contradiction between her fate and her mood was total.  How, given her condition, was she so obviously at peace with the world and herself?

After we parted, the director of the home told me her story.  Early on in the course of her illness, she had decided to dedicate her life to helping others as incapacitated as herself.  There were only two problems: unable to move, she could not visit them and they could not visit her.  So she set about bringing the world to her bedside.  She had two phone lines installed.  She taught herself how to use a computer and databases (this was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before e-mails and the Internet were easily available or widely used, but she had enough with which to begin).  From her bed she began building a network of relationships that became the ‘Hope’ Help Line.

Sue contacted people who, like her, suffered serious illness or handicap.  She became their adviser, mentor and friend.  She spoke with them regularly, helping them endure/cope with crises, advising them on available resources, lifting them when they felt low.

Towards the end of her all-too-short life, she was recognized by the Queen (Sue lived in England) for her outstanding work.  Sue was the first person taken to the Palace on a hospital bed and to receive her honor while lying down.  She reminded folks that the award was not for her; she had merely been delegated to receive it on behalf of her fellow sufferers.  Sue had no time for self-regard.

Quietly, undemonstratively, Sue was a heroine of the spirit.  She taught me, as she taught others, what it is to defeat tragedy.  The sages once said that the ark in the wilderness ‘lifted those who lifted it.’  They thought they were carrying the ark.  In fact it was carrying them.  Sue Burns lifted herself by lifting others.

I never asked her what gave her the strength to live as she had done.  I think she knew the truth stated by Kierkegaard when he said: ‘The door to happiness opens outwards.’  She never gave her illness the chance to turn her in on herself or feel sorry for her condition.  Sue turned outward, caring for other people’s suffering, and in so doing was able to forget her own, or at least, prevent it from demoralizing her.

But I suspect that Sue knew more – that at some time she had said to herself: ‘There must be a reason why this has happened to me.  It is God’s way of enabling me to do something I could not have done otherwise.’ 

Sue found purpose in her suffering.  Those who have a ‘why’ for life, said Nietzche, can put up with any ‘how.

That was Sue Burns, who took affliction and turned it into a blessing.” 

Thank you, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for sharing Sue’s story with us.  Let he who has ears listen and learn!

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‘WHAT DOES IT MEAN. . .’

We see people and things not as they are but as we are. –Anthony de Mello

I woke up this morning as I do each morning breathing deeply and silently savoring many of the people, experiences, and things I am grateful for.  Then I began to noodle: What does it mean to wake up?  I have been holding this question for the past 1 ½ hours and so far this is what has emerged for me this morning.

Part of waking up is that I live my life as I see fit.  This is not being selfish in our general sense of the idea.  Being ego-centric is to demand that another live his or her life as I see fit.  It is not selfish to live my life as I see fit.  I become ego-centric when I demand that YOU live your life to suit my tastes, or my ‘profit’ or my pleasure.  Neither will I live my life for you.  I will enjoy our relationship without clinging to it (or you) – this is a major challenge for me.

Waking up is usually a surprise – like suddenly waking up in the morning.  Waking up occurs when I least expect it.  Most of us are familiar with the dictionary writer, Webster.  Well, one day, Webster’s wife came home unexpectedly and when she entered the parlor there was Webster kissing the maid.  She told Webster that she was very surprised.  Now Webster, being Webster – that is one who is a stickler for the correct usage of words – looked at his wife, paused, and responded: My dear, you are wrong.  I am surprised. You are astonished!

Waking up has also presented a trap for me.  At one time I thought I could not be happy until I woke up – waking up then became a goal, a destination to be reached.  What I learned – and what is still a challenge for me to live into – is that simple ‘awareness’ is all that I need.  To be present to, to be aware of this moment and to embrace this moment.  My commitment to this simple discipline results in my awareness actually growing more broadly and deeply.

I am reminded of the student who told his teacher that he was going travel to a far place in order to meditate and to become ‘fully awake.’  After six months the teacher received a note from the student stating that he was making progress.  The student wrote: Now I understand what it means to lose the self.’  The teacher read the note, tore it up and threw it away.  Six months later another note arrived.  Now I have attained sensitivity to all beings.  The teacher read the note, tore it up and threw it away.  Two years later the teacher received the following note: Now I understand the secret of the one and the many.  Again, the teacher read it, tore it up and threw it away.  Years went by and the teacher heard nothing.  Then one day a fellow appeared and handed the teacher a note; the bearer of the note said it was from the teacher’s student.  The teacher opened the note: What does it matter?  The teacher looked up and said He made it! He finally got it!

Then there is the story of the soldier who during the battle would drop his rifle when he saw a piece of paper and pick up the paper, look at it and open his hands and the paper would flutter to the ground.  He did this every time he saw a piece of paper.  His friends and his superiors worried about him.  They sent him to see the psychiatrist.  The doctor put him in the hospital.  The doctor talked with him, the doctor gave him drugs.  Nothing stopped the behavior.  Each time the man saw a piece of paper he would stop, pick it up, look at it and then open his hands and watch the paper flutter to the ground.  Finally, the doctors said that the man was incurable and that he should be discharged from the service.  So all of the paper work was done and the man was called in and handed his discharge papers.  The man took them, looked at them, and then looked up and shouts: ‘This is it!  This is it!’  He opened his hands, let the paper fall to the floor and exited the room.

Each day, the Universe provides me many pieces of paper that can help me be in the now, that can help me be awake and aware.  Some are surprises and some are astonishments and some are ‘what does it matter’ and some are ‘this is it.’  The question for me is am I willing today to be present, to be awake and aware, to the little pieces of paper that come my way?  Am I then able to let them go?

Why not concentrate on the ‘now’ instead of hoping for better times in the future? –Anthony de Mello

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WHAT DOES RESIDE WITHIN?

Being human means being conscious and responsible. –Viktor Frankl

Recently I spent some time savoring one of my favorite tales written by Leo Tolstoy.  Leo continues to serve me at many levels.  He reminded me about two things: first, the Devil does exist and second, the Devil exists in me [the Devil, as we know, has many names: evil, darkness, Satan, and one of my favorites, The Accuser].

The Devil is persistent and patient; the Devil never gives up.  When I have ‘won’ a victory over him he withdraws and waits patiently until I either call him forth or until he sees an opening – usually an old habit or pattern of mine – and then he returns.  The Devil (or evil or darkness or vice) resides within me and although he is powerful he can be defeated (but not eliminated).  I know that the Devil cannot ‘win’ unless I allow him to win.  I also know that I can defeat the Devil when I open my heart, soul and life to Love (God is Love is no simple statement for me).

At times, like Daniel Webster, I attempt to reason with or bargain with the Devil.  He smiles and seems to be willing to do so.  And then I end up collaborating with him – I hold onto my anger, or my spite, or my resentment, or my envy or my. . .(fill in the blank).  I also know, from experience, that when I decide, when I choose, that I will embrace Love and Light and act rooted in both that the Devil skulks away (I imagine him sitting in a corner pouting).

Tolstoy reminded me that the Devil also lurks within relationships and families.  This I believe.  I also believe that the Devil lurks within all organized groups of two or more folk – governments, businesses, educational institutions, and houses of worship of all faith-traditions.  These institutions project their own darkness or vices or evil into and onto their worlds and in doing so they actually enhance the Devil’s power and impact upon all of us.  These groups are tempted by self-righteousness, prejudice, righteous violence (physical, intellectual, emotional and yes, spiritual).  In a move that is truly ironic, when the Devil manifests himself through these groups this manifestation is rooted in a belief that ‘the other’ is a demon.  They are blinded by the demon that resides within (the log in their own eye).

I am imperfect, so are you, so are our relationships.  I then conclude that it is an illusion for any group – especially any society – to believe that it can be without evil (or vice or the Devil) is a tap root that enables us to rain (and reign) great destruction in our world.  The belief that we can build a perfect world – if we can destroy those evil people who block our noble efforts – is what lay behind Hitler, Stalin and our own collective self-righteousness.

I-You-We are capable of bringing great light into our lives and into our world.  We also have to accept that the Devil does reside within and that we are just as capable of bringing great darkness (evil or vice) into our world.  Rather than look out at ‘them’ we must have the courage and faith and trust to look within first.  We are capable of opening our hearts, souls and lives to Love and this must also begin from within.  A wise man once said that evil occurs one individual and one act at a time; so does Love.

What will I choose today?  Will I choose Love?  Check back with me later on and I will let you know.

This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him or boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth… –Jer.9:23-24

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