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CONSIDER ‘PROPHETS,’ PART I

To a person endowed with prophetic sight, everyone else appears blind; to a person whose ear perceives God’s voice, everyone else appears deaf. –Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

During this past year or so I have been immersing myself in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s powerful treatise, The Prophets.  I have decided to share with you, Gentle Reader, some of what has been emerging into my consciousness during this time of immersion (I call it ‘taking a deep dive into the deep undercurrents’).  I will also be offering you some of Heschel’s own words.

The Prophet embraces God’s invitation and challenge (or is it a demand) to straighten out man’s ways.  To those experiencing the Prophet, the Prophet is strange, one-sided, often an unbearable extremist. 

Most of us, if we are awake and aware, suffer from existential loneliness.  The Prophet, however, is overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Divine Presence.  For the Prophet the realness of God comes first and the challenge is how to live in a way compatible with God’s Presence.  As Heschel notes: Man’s coexistence with God determines the course of history.  I experience Heschel’s words as both challenging and disturbing.

For the Prophet, God’s Presence is a challenge, a never-ending demand.  The demand: To remind us that God is Compassion and Love without compromise.

Now the Prophet’s predictions can always be proved wrong by a person, a people, changing his/her/their conduct.  What can never be proved wrong is God’s Compassion and Love for each person.

Heschel reminds us that: The prophet’s word is a scream in the night.  While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.

Who is the Prophet?  The Prophet is a ‘Watchman’ (Hos. 9:8), a ‘Servant’ (Amos 3:7; Jer. 25:4; 26:5), a ‘Messenger’ of God (Hag. 1:3), an ‘Assayer & Tester’ of the people’s ways (Jer. 6:27); ‘whenever you hear a word from My mouth you shall give them warning from Me’ (Ezek. 3:17). 

The Prophet’s focus is always directed to the ‘now;’ the society (think: People of the Book, a Nation, a Global Community) and its conduct are the main theme of the Prophet’s words.  The Prophet’s words are the result of his inclining his ear to God and God’s Voice.  The Prophet is able to hold God and Man in a single thought. 

The Prophet is more than a mere messenger.  The Prophet is a person who stands in the Presence of God (Jer. 15:19), who stands ‘in the council of the Lord’ (Jer. 23:18), who is a participant with God, not a bearer of dispatches whose function is limited to being an errand boy.  I am thinking of the Prophets who challenged God with the result being that God changed His (or was it Her) mind. 

Given this, the Prophet not only conveys, the Prophet reveals.  In a deep sense the Prophet does unto others what God does unto the Prophet.  In speaking, the Prophet reveals God.  As Heschel notes: ‘In his words, the invisible God becomes audible.’ The authority of the Prophet is in the Presence his words reveal.

I will conclude PART I with Heschel’s words: ‘There are no proofs for the existence of the God of Abraham.  There are only witnesses.  The greatness of the prophet lies not only in the ideas he expressed, but also in the moments he experienced.  The prophet is a witness, and his words a testimony – to His power and judgment, to His justice and mercy.’ 

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Consider, Gentle Reader, that there is a difference between knowledge, information and awareness.  Many years ago my spiritual director noted that ‘one cannot do evil in awareness.’  On the other hand, one can do evil rooted in knowledge or information; one can do evil even when one ‘knows’ that the act is evil.  As a Christian Ecumenist I remind myself of Jesus’ words: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’  They were NOT AWARE of what they were doing.  Consider, if they were AWARE that they were crucifying the Lord of Glory they would never have done so.  As I recall, Jesus also said something like this: ‘The time will come when they will persecute you and they THINK they are dong service to God’ – How often has this been done; how often does it continue to be done by ‘good’ people [I am now taking a deep breath as I choose not to become side-tracked into a rant about the destructive negative political ads put forth by ‘Good Christians’ that at times wash over us like an out of control tsunami].    

We blind ourselves when we have knowledge and information without being awake and aware.  Without awareness it is easy for knowledgeable and informed folks to rationalize the most evil of acts. 

When does our knowledge and information hinder us from becoming aware?  Remember, being aware does not bring comfort; more often than not it brings disturbance.  We have to dehumanize the other(s) in order to shun, in order to marginalize, in order to harm, in order to ignore, and in order to guilt-free kill.  I am thinking of two Christmas Eve incidents – one during WWI and the other, on a smaller scale during WWII.  The combatants actually met and for several hours they ‘got to know one another as human beings.’  They became awake and aware.  Only with threats and interventions from the commanders not present did the fighting resume. 

Now there is a trap here.  There is a belief (common I think) that knowledge and information plus awareness equals change.  Not so.  For years I fought depression.  Then I gained some knowledge and information.  I still fought depression.  Then I gained awareness.  I still fought depression.  I am reminded of the great Chinese sage who said: ‘Before enlightenment I was depressed.  After enlightenment I was depressed.’ 

I experienced less depression when I accepted my depression [I understand that some depression is ‘organically rooted’ and that it can be treated with medication].  That was the paradox for me.  Acceptance of who I am opened the pathway to less depression – knowledge, information and awareness helped but having them did not change me.  Actually, what I often experienced was that the harder I worked at not being depressed the more depressed I became when I ‘failed.’  Learning to be at peace with who I am actually released me from the throes of deep depression. 

My depression has been a gift.  I have been able to embrace the spiritual dark nights of my soul; I have been able to wander in the wilderness and wasteland and not lose hope; I have been able to perceive and savor the little pieces of light that are always present no matter how dark it becomes.  I have been able to dive into the depths and struggle with my version of Grendel’s mother (read Beowulf for a deeper understanding of what a deep dive entails) and surface again into the light, more alive and more healthy in spite of my wounds.  I have been more empathetic with others who struggle and at times find themselves in the darkness.  The dark nights of my soul provide me with the opportunity to learn more about myself; no one else could provide this opportunity or this learning. 

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The temperature has been quite below normal these past few days [an understatement to be sure].  Mark Twain captured this well when he noted that ‘It was so cold that if the thermometer had been an inch longer, we would have frozen to death.’  As I pondered his insightful words this morning it occurred to me that at times we – you and I – freeze to death on words, or we are consumed by their flames and heat.  Here’s a story to remind us of how ‘freezing’ or ‘inflaming’ words can be:

A wise person was speaking to a gathering one day; we will call this person ‘the wizard.’  The wizard was attempting to explain how powerful words are and how we humans tend to become quite emotional when it comes to certain words.  How we humans react (over react) to them; how we listen intently for key words that confirm, affirm, challenge or disturb us – and then how we emotionally react to them.  How words define our reality.  How some words ‘freeze us to death’ and ‘stop us cold’ and how other words ‘inflame us to the point of being consumed by their fire and heat.’ 

All of a sudden a man jumped out of his chair – nearly out of his skin, I am told – and shouted: ‘Who are you trying to kid, words don’t affect me that way; they have no power over me!’ 

The wizard paused, and smiled that knowing smile that only wise folks can smile, then the wizard shouted rather loudly: ‘Sit down and shut up!’  The man became livid, red with rage.  He shouted back, ‘How can you call yourself wise and treat others like this?’ [Well, Gentle Reader, these were not his exact words; I am told that his exact words would not be appropriate for this post.]

The wizard paused again, smiled again, and replied: ‘You are correct.  Please forgive me; I lost control of myself for a moment.  I apologize to you and I regret what I said.’ 

The man then looked a bit sheepish (no insult intended to the sheep by the by), he calmed down and he sat down.  After a bit the wizard said: ‘It took but a few words to get your ire up and the fire in your belly burning out of control. And it took a few words to help you calm down.  This is the power we give to words.’  Words, words, words how freezing to death they can be, for any of us – or how all- consuming they can be, as a fire is that is fed by gasoline.   

Here is a question: How do you, Gentle Reader, get a gentle eighty year old woman to curse out loud?   You have another gentle eighty year old woman yell ‘BINGO!’  Ah…the freezing and inflaming power of words. 

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GIFTS OFFERED — SOME ACCEPTED

Throughout my life I have been gifted with a number of teachers, mentors, guides, counselors, and educators.  You might remember, Gentle Reader, how I define each of these.  If not, here are my definitions: Teacher = one with knowledge that he/she imparts.  Mentor = one who ‘sees’ potential and challenges one to call it forth; Guide = one who has ‘been there before’ and offers to help one ‘see’ the way; Counselor = one who is wise and offers ‘counsel’ – usually via questions; Educator = one who ‘calls forth’ what lies hidden within – ‘discernment’ is a major gift of the Educator. 

These past ten days or so I have been paging through some of my journals as one way of ‘refreshing’ my spirit.  Yesterday I decided to share with you, Gentle Reader, some of what my teachers, mentors, etc. have offered me as gifts; some of them I accepted, some I ‘put on hold’ and some I have yet to consider either accepting or holding. 

  • Here is one of the earliest gifts, offered to me by a ‘Counselor’ – I was 20 years old.  I had asked this person what his opinion of me was.  His reply: ‘What’s my opinion of you?  It is this: I dare to trust you with your own self.’
  • Earlier in our relationship I had made some decisions that the ‘Counselor’ deemed to be ‘thoughtless’ (which, by the by, they were).  His counsel: ‘No thoughtless person ought to be left alone!’   I learned, by experience, that the ‘thoughtless person’ (one who is not awake, aware, intentional and purpose-full in the ‘now’) plans folly and lays the groundwork for future dangers for himself and for others.  The thoughtless person welcomes his base desires, his passions and his spite, his jealousies and his prejudices.  The major benefits that solitude offers is lost to the thoughtless person. 
  • One of my spiritual guides gifted me with this: Pray for a sound mind and for good health, first of soul and then of body.  You should offer those prayers frequently. Call boldly upon God; you will not be asking God for that which belongs to another.
  • Another of my spiritual guides offered me this gift: Live among all others as if God was standing next to you.
  • One of my mentors gifted me with this: Remember, that which is inborn can be disciplined but not overcome.  I learned (well, I think I have learned) that ‘walking the talk’ is a trap of the perfectionist.  As an imperfect human being I am more likely to ‘stumble the mumble’.   ‘Consistency’ not ‘Perfection’ is a more realistic goal for me.
  • Another of my mentors offered me this gift: Cherish a person of high character and keep that person ever before your eyes, living as if that person were watching you.  I am able to avoid some pitfalls when I am aware of this person watching me as I strive to make a decision.  The clearer I am able to image this person standing with me the more likely I am to choose wisely. 
  • On my ‘good days’ I prepare for sleep by saying the following: I have lived today.  The path I have chosen to follow today is finished.  And God, if you are pleased to grant me another day tomorrow may I choose to follow a path of light and love.

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Religious belief, on the deepest level, is inevitably also a principle of freedom.  To defend one’s faith is to defend the freedom of everyone. –Thomas Merton

I am a Catholic AND I believe there is truth in all faith, philosophic and humanist traditions.  As a Catholic I believe that my Church guarantees me the highest spiritual freedom.  I do not believe I would remain a Catholic if I did not believe this.  I would not remain a Catholic if I believed that the Church were merely an organization with rules and laws and prohibitions that demanded external obedience.  I view the organization as subordinate to the Holy Spirit and to the law of love.  I also know that my Church does not look like this to others.  Many believe that the Church is rooted in and acts on the principle of ‘Authority’ rather than on the principle of ‘Freedom.’  It is in Christ and in Christ’s Spirit that freedom is rooted and at her best the Church lives into and out of Christ and Christ’s Spirit.

I also believe that embracing the spiritual, interior and personal freedom is embraced not only by Christianity, these are also embraced by all religions.  These are common to all faith traditions (and almost all philosophic and humanist traditions).  I strive not to judge but to seek the truth in all traditions.  As an imperfect human being how do I know what grace God can and does give to each Christian who obeys the light of his/her conscience and follows Christ according to the faith and love he/she has received.  Let us try and understand one another and at the same time let us strive to seek the light and to live rooted in love. 

For the Jew, too, the promise of Abraham is a promise of freedom – independence under God’s guidance.  God chose His people for Himself.  God invited them to live in fidelity to a sacred covenant – a free agreement.  A bond between God and His People – a bond of liberty and love.  What did the prophets protest against more than infidelity to Yahweh?

For the Muslim, too, there is a freedom which lifts the believer above the limitations imposed by race or by society.  The believer is incorporated into a higher community, a community delivered from idol-worship and set free to embrace a white-hot faith as grand as the desert itself.  A community embracing faith in One God, the compassionate and the merciful.  Compassion and Mercy are two gifts of Freedom. 

Then there are the great Oriental traditions/religions.  They seek liberation and freedom of spirit.  They provide us with a principle of liberty by which we can rise above our need to dominate and judge. 

These traditions give us the freedom to live our own spiritual life.  They give us the freedom to seek the higher truth.  They give us the freedom to own and say one’s own ‘yes’ and one’s own ‘no.’ Embracing and ‘owning’ one’s voice is one of the great freedoms that each of these traditions gifts us with.  AND with this gift comes an unconditional response-ability and responsibility: To truly let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.’ 

We must have the courage to speak our ‘yes’ and our ‘no.’ –Thomas Merton  

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