Tuesday, November 23, 2010
The assumption behind this is that life ends at death, and as beautiful and romantic and how great this might make for a movie that will do moderately well at the box office, it’s a view of life I find wanting. If it all does end at death, then why do good? Or why even live? How about a dramatic suicide, and even that I’ll allow with something like the label of love attached to it? A loving suicide. I’m sure in that kind of framework and with such a cheap definition of love that is circulating today, it could exist.
The saints however, disagree with this view of living. Death is not the end, and in fact it’s a beginning. And bodily death is only one kind that we experience. In the Christian tradition, a person can be spiritually dead, but bodily they are alive, like corpse animated by strings not its own.
The mystics would say we need to live in the moment, the present is the only reality, though the promises of God and what we are predestined for is always in sight. I find this a far more compelling and truer view. The other is driven by discontent and an unclear depiction of the good life. It’s easy to accept and buy into- pop culture will provide plenty of images and ideas of how to move forward with it. It’s false, however, and only makes the problem worse.
The other is a mere acceptance of where we are, as it is, and to move on from there. What is happening now? My strongest memories are of when I stopped and sank into the ground of where I was and lived, wanting nothing else. God shows up in those moments like that whisper of His tends to do, and I’m lifted above things, seeing beyond them and into them. In these moments we taste the divine, and we live a life not of this world, a far more pleasing thing that falling from the sky in an airplane. Eternity is really eternity when we touch God and play by His rules, for those are the rules of the universe. There is no other set to follow that will lead to life.
But let’s say God did write a bucket list for all those wanting to experience life. Let’s say they’re found written on stone, or coming from the mouth of Christ, the divine Logos. What would it have to say?
We are not of this world, and looking for an otherworldly experience in this one is futile. Futile is the word that best describes this part of our existence, because the bucket list of this world can run on forever; not the forever of heaven, but the forever of hell.
Monday, November 15, 2010
For this morning it mentioned “morning poison” which is the leftover garbage from the previous day, residual mess that only hinders our functioning for a new day. Morning poison is an apt name for this spiritual phenomenon. It’s the breakup that doesn’t settle until you wake up and realize that actually happened the day before. It’s the recollection of the past day’s choices, a harmful comment, or a sad reality about a person’s life.
The antidote for this poison is not denial, an quick-fix to a lingering problem. Denial can take many forms, even the deceptive satisfaction of putting on a smile with no regrets. Regrets play a part in dismissing the poison, as painful as it might be. What it takes is a cold confession to God, knowing the reality of what we can and can’t do, and seeing the day for what it is.
This is why I pray before anything else in the morning. If you wait to long, the poison will spread and do an incredible amount of harm.
The reality, like many kinds of poisons, is that it is natural at its start, though the fermentation over time makes it the lethal intruder to the spirit.
I’ve also found that if I can’t detect any poison, even if there is some, it will rise to the surface through silence or fasting. Take food away from me for a day and all the nastiness that has settled and assimilated to my soul will be purged and the sight is atrocious. Emotions arise along with bad habits that become undeniable.
The truth is that fasting can take many forms, the most obvious being what we all think of when we hear the word. Depriving ourselves of something that brings comfort and life, and letting the spiritual life rule in its stead.
Morning prayer can be a minor fast because it’s a deprivation of hurry and busyness, especially if our evenings end in a run, killing the poison hidden and revealed by stress.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Summed up, this means prayer can be done poorly.
“But wait, we should applaud attempts at communing with God.”
This is true, though it’s lazy to not try and do it better or learn as much as we can about it. If you don’t believe me, then read the parable of the pharisee and the publican, or Cain and Abel’s offerings to God.
There are three great lies concerning prayer in our time.
“I never pray for myself.”
It sounds holy on the surface. It is not. Where would such an idea come from? What we’ve done in our time is take an odd stance on virtue in saying the more a person focuses on others, the holier they are. It’s simple math, if a person who thinks of themselves all the time is not good, then the complete opposite is far better, right?
The problem with this is that in order for us to become holy, we need to bring all of who we are to God, which means the way we are regardless of what we think we should be. This might be the biggest impediment to genuine prayer. Someone who becomes a completely different person when they approach God in prayer is not being honest with God and is missing the greatest part of prayer. It’s an issue of the will. The purpose of prayer is to bring who we are, which is closely tied to our will, and presenting it to God to be changed to have God shed light on us. It’s creating space for us and God to interact. Anyone who has kept the habit of prayer will tell you this. Entering a state of prayer changes a person. Openness to God is fundamental to prayer.
But wait, what about the publican, he was so self-effacing in his prayer. This is true, and self-effacement is not the same as never praying to become more holy, or for God to work good in our lives. Two key ingredients that must be present for good prayer: our will and God’s will. If either are shirked or fudged, it loses much of its power. Dishonesty is our worst enemy when we pray.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
In John Paul II’s book “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” a chapter dedicated to Buddhism and Christianity covers a few interesting relations between these two major world religions. The book was written in the mid-90s when Buddhism’s appeal was a vibrant voice in conversations concerning the spiritual landscape in the West, which I participated in as an interest my freshman year of college strictly out of the desire for spiritual practices other than reading the Bible and extemporaneous prayer taught to me by my Baptist friends. Like many people who are attracted to Buddhism, it was the practice of meditation that lies at the center of it that appealed to me. This is not to say that Bible reading and extemporaneous prayer are deficient as spiritual practices, but they are lacking in one area of the spiritual life.
I bought a few books, took up the practice of meditation for half an hour a day, and it’s something I haven’t completely removed from my daily life since.
My interest in Buddhism, though, ended after a few months, and I moved on to Augustine and the early church. If someone were to ask me years later why I walked away from Buddhism I would say it’s because I felt isolated and removed from everything.
But that’s what Buddhism is about. It’s an atheistic religion that sees detachment from the world, enlightenment, nirvana, as the goal and way of salvation. The appealing aspect of this is that it is salvation, though only half of it. It’s what JP II calls “negative salvation.”
In psychology we call this negative reinforcement. The good is the removal of the bad, or more particularly, detachment from the world which leads to suffering, which is bad. Much of what Jesus says with his “dying to the world” talk relates to this. Christianity is right in line with Buddhism so far. Open up “The Imitation of Christ” and you’ll see passage after passage dealing with detachment from the world. I read this work alongside my Buddhist readings and saw the similarity.
So, Christianity and Buddhism are the same, right?
They’re not, and for this reason they’re not- Christianity poses a negative salvation along with a positive one. Both make up the Christian view of salvation. We are called to detach ourselves from the world, and transcend it because we are not made for it. Something’s off, we’re not at home, and the absence of suffering is not the answer to this problem, nor is it the complete answer.
The Christian view of salvation is that we remove all love of this world and cling to God.
That’s the big difference. Humans are not called to transcendence alone, but to be transfigured, lifted above the mountain and changed into something not of this world. And this can only happen through God’s intervention in our downward spiral away from Him.
God is not a nothingness we cling to, though Christian mystics might allude to this at times. What they’re getting at is that the great “cloud of unknowing” is the mystery beyond the world, beyond human reason, where God resides. It’s in the emptiness of the cross, the peak and lowest point of human suffering, that God saves us and we have access to Him.
So, what was the one thing I wanted my freshman year that Bible reading and extemporaneous prayer didn’t seem to offer? Silence.
Buddhism will give a person plenty of that.
One last point. The differences in meditative practices show this divergence between the two because Buddhism seeks silence and detachment while Christianity seeks the same, though only in order to fill it with the voice of God. The question on a practical level, then, is whether or not a person’s spiritual life has both these elements.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
Thursday, November 4, 2010
In that free time we are given, we have no immediate consequences.
In the obligations we do have, there are varying degrees of intensity. If you miss work three days in a row, there are serious consequences. If you don’t come home for a week without telling your family, there will be consequences. If you don’t study for a final, there are consequences. And most of these are immediate. They’re easy to pay attention to because we don’t want to reap the results of shoddy work. Fulfilling these obligations are good, everyone should complete them as best they can, but what about the things that don’t scream so loudly when they’re neglected for a bit?
Parts of life like our relationship to God, our children, old friendships, or hobbies we’ve always wanted to take up?
I have great friends from my past, and it’s easy to tell myself that not talking to them often doesn’t harm anything. In fact, I can completely neglect those relationships and never see negative consequences. But that’s the point.
When negative consequences are what drives a person to act, or the more immediate one along with it, then life is not lived well.
When we shrug off worship or prayer, or time with old friends because they’re expendable and we have more pressing things to take care of, we let those things run our lives and we don’t have a healthy life.
Go back to that scenario I put forth at the beginning of this blog.
If your answer is that you will do nothing because you have no obligations to anyone, then you are living right now by the rule of immediate consequences.
We don’t need a hypothetical situation to figure out if a person is, though. All that’s needed is close examination of a person’s free time.
Had a day off? What did you do? Is that who you want to be?
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
If we donate such and such to such and such cause, we’ll help out these people in a country much poorer than our own. It’s a nice thought, but why? For social change? That’s a popular one. To change the world? Another big one. But what if those things don’t happen? Are we certain that giving will make any difference at all, and what is the stopping place?
That’s the real point I want to make. If it’s guilt, social change, compulsion, peer pressure that are the reasons, then I have serious doubts as to whether this movement toward philanthropy will be lasting. Those in the Christian tradition helped the poor because that’s what Christ commanded. It’s the new law. And the law should not be broken for the sake of convenience, even though it very often is.
But that’s not how these causes are advertised is it?
Help us change the world. Help us make a difference. Look how efficient your money will become if you donate it to us. It’s become a point of marketing a product because of its efficiency, not because its goodness. When efficiency becomes the end in itself, it becomes a move to progress without a clear goal. If the reason for doing anything good is out of a desire for global change, or guilt, or anything or thing besides moral law and it being good in itself, then it will die or turn into something far nastier than a person intended.
St. Francis of Assisi is a popular saint as of late. “Preach the Gospel and use words if necessary,” is the famous saying. Read about his life and his personality. He was the least efficient person when it came to good works. He was impulsive and flighty, but look at the good he expressed through his life. He was already sold on loving simply because he knew he was loved by God first, and all he wanted was to share it with every person he came in contact with. Because of this, he’s one of the most revered saints in the Christian tradition.
That’s his reason. What’s yours?