Archive for September, 2020


The great Sufi poet, Rumi, writes:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep…     

People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.      

As I awoke early this morning for a brief moment I was aware of the world of unconscious slumber and conscious awareness touching.  As I stretch and yawn and breathe deeply I move from one world to the other; it is not a linear movement, it is a movement — a rhythm — back and forth or a movement from inner to outer or a movement from being asleep to being awake.  The unseen, but deeply experienced, boundary between these two worlds a door and a threshold.  Just as we open doors and cross over physical thresholds many times a day, we also open internal doors and cross internal thresholds.  These doors & thresholds provide access to the deep mysteries of our inner life. 

Our inner doors & thresholds signify a separation between the known and the unknown, between the spirit and the body and between the hidden and the manifested dimensions of my life.  The ancient Celts believed there was a thin veil that covers the door & threshold between the concrete world and the spiritual world of their ancestors.  Certain members of the Clan were gifted with a special inner sight that would enable them to communicate with the ancestors; this gift allowed them to cross back and forth between this world and the world of the spirit.

For me, the concepts of door & threshold — a metaphor if you will — clearly describes a crucial component of my own spiritual journey.  The door & threshold marks the division between who I am today and who I am choosing to become — between who I am and who I am called to become.  Throughout recorded history images of doors & thresholds, gates and arches have served as symbolic passageways into new worlds.  Doors & Thresholds symbolize the possibility of the ‘new’ — new life, new experience, new identity.  They provide us a way of marking the divide between two very different worlds — the world of the mundane and the world of the sacred and the world of the sacred and the world of the profane.  They help us move between the internal and the external, between the subjective and the objective, between the visible and the invisible and between being asleep and being awake. 

A physical door & threshold announce a passageway between two different external spaces.  A nonphysical door & threshold announce a passageway between our external life and our inner life.  The door & threshold ‘announce’ these only; we have to choose — we do choose — whether to open the door and cross the threshold or not.  The door & threshold also provide us an opportunity to ‘pause’ and ‘reflect’ before we decide to open the door and cross over the threshold or to withdraw.  In literature the terms ‘door-threshold experience’ indicate a significant crossing over not just any crossing over.  A door-threshold experience involves a search for clarification of one’s essential beliefs, core values, guiding life principles, life-choices and life-markers.    

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Good morning Gentle Reader.  Recently I have been reflecting upon Antonio Machado’s challenging poem which ends with: What have you done with the garden entrusted to you?  Yesterday morning as I was reading Tolstoy’s epic novel ‘War and Peace’ I was reflecting upon the characters he was introducing us to.  Each person is a garden and each person is the gardener of his or her garden.  As I was thinking of each person I noticed a poem emerging into my consciousness.  I put Tolstoy down, opened up my journal, took pen in hand and began to write. 

This morning, Gentle Reader, I have decided to share with you the poem that emerged into my consciousness.  A gift from Machado and Tolstoy to me and a gift from me to you. 

The Gardener’s Seeds (Richard W Smith, 17 September, 2020)

One day the Gardener looked into the mirror and studied the face of the Garden entrusted to the Gardener.

 A question emerged: How is the health of the Garden that has been entrusted to you?

The question startled the Gardener into awareness.

The awareness brought, not comfort, but comfort’s sibling, disturbance. 

A question emerged: What are the seeds you have sown and nurtured to life in the garden of your soul – why those seeds?

More awareness.  More disturbance.

A question emerged: What are the seeds you chose not to sow – why those seeds?

More awareness.  More disturbance.

The Gardner stood aware and disturbed, riveted by the mirror-eyes that are the pathway to one’s soul.

The Gardener’s mirror-eyes invited, or was it challenged, the Gardener to consider these seeds: empathy, compassion, nonjudgement, forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, kindness, nonviolence, unconditional positive regard for all, patience, love, respect for all and understanding.

More awareness.  More disturbance.

The Gardner was about to turn away from looking into those mirror-eyes, when they whispered, ‘Wait!  There is another question.’ 

The whispered-question was offered: Which of the following seeds have you sown and nurtured into life: self-violence, rashness, non-forgiveness, spite, jealousy, revenge, prejudice, closed-mindedness, non-reconciliation, ignorance, greed, self-centeredness and misunderstanding.

More Awareness.  More disturbance.

The Gardener, full of awareness and disturbance, turned from the mirror-eyes and began to walk away. 

With each step taken awareness and disturbance slowly faded away. 

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We become what we repeatedly think and do. –Aristotle

During our time together Rollo May held up to us a particular kind of evil that we were exerting against young people and hence against the development of our own culture.  He suggested to us that we had turned our American culture over to illiteracy.  For example, students could graduate from college or university without taking one course that would help them understand the sources of our civilization (e.g. Israel and Greece).  Students could graduate without taking but one history course and many colleges and universities were no longer requiring that a student take a foreign language. 

The discipline of learning a foreign language is important and perhaps more important is that one would also be exposed to the culture and history of the country [I experienced these when I took a foreign language during my freshman year at university]. 

Rollo May also asked us to consider that more and more, our television programs supported our illiteracy by bombarding us with ‘trash.’  Finally he suggested that there was another type of illiteracy, the illiteracy that came with deep specialization. 

As I type these words this morning I am wondering how we are doing today when it comes to our culture and illiteracy.  What do you think Gentle Reader? 

Rollo May attended Oberlin College and he shared with us a poem (one, he said, that ‘wasn’t terribly great poetry, but it helped me very much’):

                             Hold fast your dreams

                             Within your heart,

                             Keep a place apart

                             Where dreams may go, and sheltered so

                             May thrive and grow.

                             Where doubt and fear are not,

                             Hold fast, hold fast your dreams.

I remember as an undergraduate being introduced to the Greeks; it was one of the most important learning experiences of my young life.  The professor opened up to me the past and also helped me see the connection to the present.  I could read Aeschylus and Plato as he wrote about Socrates.  I learned the power of one man, Socrates, who simply stirred the intellectual pot by asking questions and I learned the fear of the ‘State’ that turned into anger and murder because the young were asking too many questions. 

I am now remembering the high school students I taught to ask penetrating questions and how those in ‘authority’ did not like them to think critically.  I remember one administrator who was berating me for teaching my students to ask questions; he said, “I don’t want them to think, I want them to learn!”  Today, I find this quite humorous and sad. 

I have been re-reading Christopher Marlowe’s Faust [now here was an interesting and tragic figure – Marlowe, that is].  In his version of Faust, he has Faust say, as he nears the end of his stay on earth, “The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.” 

Faust says to himself:

                   Oh, I’ll leap up to my God!

                   Who pulls me down?

                   See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!

                   One drop would save my soul – half a drop!  Ah, my Christ!

                   Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ;

                   Yet will I call on him – Oh, spare me, Lucifer!

                   Where is it now?  ‘Tis gone, and see where God

                   Stretcheth out his arms and bends his ireful brows,

                   Mountains and hills, come, come and fall on me

                   And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!

                   No, no

                   Then I will run headlong into the earth.

                   Earth, gape! O no, it will not harbor me.  (Act V, Scene ii)

It does not matter whether one is cast into Hell or not, no matter what one’s view of Hell may be.  Hell, with evil, resides within each of us and it is a pitiful thing and is a destruction of our love, and a destruction of our hearts and ourselves.  We, each of us, can combat evil by seeking to understand ourselves, by seeking to understand others, and by learning how to love ourselves and by learning how to love others. 

The ‘Resistance’ will help you find the thing you most need to do because it is the thing the ‘Resistance’ wants to stop. –Seth Godwin

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Since Auschwitz, we know what man is capable of.  And since Hiroshima, we know what is at stake. –Viktor Frankl

In 1973 I had the privilege of spending an evening with Rollo May and fifteen other searchers and seekers [gentle reader, you might find his book ‘Man’s Search for Himself’ or his book ‘Love and Will’ or his book ‘The Courage to Create’ a stimulating read].  During our time together in 1973 he explored the concept of ‘Evil.’  We will not be able to rid ourselves of evil but we can move into a way of life that will help us use evil for constructive purposes.  As human beings, when we become conscious we develop our capacity for evil.  With consciousness we become aware of the deep meaning of life and we also become aware of the depth of meaninglessness in our lives; we truly are living paradoxes.

When we experience that our lives move from meaning to meaninglessness we begin to move toward evil.  When we are living in a constant state of meaninglessness we then, as individuals or as a nation, run amok.  Germany experienced such meaninglessness after World War I and we know how they eventually ran amok as a nation.  Rollo May believed in 1973 that the most difficult problem facing the human race was a lack of meaning in our lives [given all that we experience globally this might well continue to be the case today in 2020]. 

At one point during our conversation he quoted Dylan Thomas:

                   Do not go gently into that good night.

                   Rage, rage against the dying of the light.   

He asked us to consider that in order to extricate ourselves from ‘meaninglessness’ we need to be full of passion and rage for it takes a great deal of energy to break loose of its hold on us.  In addition to being full of passion and rage we must also become conscious – we must become awake and aware and we must choose.  Like the child, we must once again give birth to self-consciousness.  He invited us to consider the parable of Adam and Eve; a parable of becoming self-conscious.  Before this birth there was no anxiety in Eden, there was no guilt.  Once they gave birth to their self-consciousness they became anxious and experienced guilt and fear and shame.  As they walked out of Eden they looked upon the vast world, a new world.  Milton in his Paradise Lost captured this so beautifully when he wrote:

                   The world was all before them, where to choose

                   Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:

                   They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,

                   Through Eden took their solitary way. 

Rollo May counseled that we must confront evil for wiping it out is impossible.  This seeking to wipe evil out is one of the great dangers of many religions – they think we can put evil on to someone else, like the Devil, the Evil Empire, the immigrant, or the stranger and by separating it thus we can survive.  Evil cannot be put out of human life. 

He then said something that caught me off guard: “. . .if one tries to put it out, then the rage is put out with it and the capacities to create are thrown aside with the so-called evil.”  He then quoted from Goethe’s ‘Faust.’ A question is put by Faust to Mephistopheles, “Who are you?” 

Mephistopheles answers, “I am that which always does evil which turns into good.”  Evil is caused by the Good and out of Evil Good emerges.  Satan, we might recall, was a worshipper of God, he was not an agnostic.  Consider that the devil is needed by God – out of the capacity to deal with Evil, there comes THE GOOD.    

There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. –Martin Luther King, Jr.

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These are the souls for whom Christ died, and, for our Conduct toward them, we must answer before him who is no Respecter of Persons. –John Woolman

I have been spending time re-reading and re-savoring John Woolman’s ‘Journal.’  Woolman (1720-1772) was a Quaker who determined when he was in his early 20s that it was immoral for Quakers (anyone, actually) to be slaveholders.  He spent nearly thirty years traveling throughout the colonies where the Quakers had a major presence and by his persistent, gentle persuasion – mostly via questions – he helped individual Quakers and the Society of Friends eventually decide that owning another person was, indeed, immoral.  The Society of Friends was the first ‘organized’ religious group in America that prohibited the owning of slaves.  A gift he gave us was his ‘Journal’ and I invite you, gentle reader, to seek out his ‘Journal’ and search his writing for words that might speak to you.

John Woolman did not try to stir up feelings against those who had power or possessions, but he sought to arouse the feelings of these very people and to awaken their consciences.  He did not stand apart and condemn the Quaker slaveholders, but took upon himself the burden of their guilt.

Woolman’s influence has extended far beyond his own generation and beyond the Society of Friends.  The root causes to which he devoted his life are timeless.  Not typical of humans generally, his views and his character remain those of a minority.  Yet certain of his attitudes have been absorbed into our American culture.  Some of these attitudes have been identified by Henry Seidel Canby in his 1931 book, ‘Classic Americans.’ 

Canby affirms Woolman’s ‘Journal’ to be “of almost incalculable influence upon American culture,” he singled out Woolman as exemplifying “the Quaker,” whom he characterized as follows:

[Woolman] “…gave the widest diffusion to the optimistic humanitarianism that was the direct result of his theory of a beneficent Inner Light.  Distrust of violence, a belief in the essential kinship of mankind, respect for the individual without reference to rank or estate, justice and mercy to prisoner and to slaves, dislike of pomp and circumstance, all these Quaker fundamentals have been American ideals also, held by many if by no means all, and strong enough to shape America’s history.” 

Woolman is especially relevant to us in the 21st Century.  He is needed to point up the moral realities that racism, hedonism and violence have tended to obscure.  His words do present a few challenges to modern readers.  Now and then his language sounds quaint or archaic.  At times he seems over scrupulous.  Yet, the modern reader [i.e. you and me] can easily cut through such minor challenges and perceive the lucid insights and the profound truths his writings convey.

What does Woolman say to us?  He encourages the sensitive and compassionate.  To anyone who is under pressure to turn his conscience over to a superior, an employer, a leader or a nation, he brings a reminder of the responsibility (response-ability) owed to one’s conscience, to society and to God.   To those who look for immediate results, he reveals the ramifications and interconnections of our separate acts. 

For those caught up in sensory gratification, he offers an example of simple living and concern for one’s neighbors.  To the pragmatist who adjusts his conduct as expediency dictates, he provides an instance of unswerving integrity.  To nihilism and fanaticism he provides an antidote of balance and perspective.  In our age of relativism, steeped in anxiety and beset by violence, he encourages those who believe in moral law, truth, love, compassion, harmony and peace.  John Woolman continues to speak to each of us across the ages. 

The question I hold: Am I open to hearing and do I seek to understand? 

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