REFLECTION: The Nature Of Nature

My high school is situated on a hill above the business districts of Newcastle and Damariscotta, Maine.  As you come out of the driveway and head toward town, you take a big curve to the left and then glide down the hill to the stop sign.

I learned to drive and got my license without ever having encountered a light signal.  The screams in the car were not for joy when we visited nearby cities with these strange lights that kept blinking at me.

Now there’s a traffic light at the crossroads where the McDonald’s sells lobster rolls.  I think the McDonald’s was there before the streetlight came.  But I’m not sure.

We all grow up in such different ways.

Anyway.

If you didn’t take that big curve to the left, if you happened to look right instead you would see the paved (but not very far) beginning to a road that leads into the woods.  The woods that were so deep that if you walked five miles or so you’d wind up at my house.  I did walk those miles, many times, with my dog, Thor, a crossbreed between a collie and a standard poodle.  A dog that would sit down, rump on sofa, feet on floor, next to me as though that were the most natural thing in the world for him to do.

He didn’t take tea, though.

He was named Thor because when my mother brought him home, already a sizable puppy, and let him out into a field to, well, you know, he leapt with fear at the form of nature that threatened to attack him.

It was a butterfly.

Thor it was.

Thor and I would stroll through the woods into town, past the blue egrets in the ponds and the geese at Mrs. Mulligan’s house that guarded her from moose and fishers and wandering hikers.  Past stand upon stand of of pine trees, their cast-off needles forming a most sweetly scented bedding.

High mass, with its smells and bells, is a sorry comparison for the distribution of sensual treats that the forest gives so freely.

Back to the hill in town.  If you followed the path I’ve been describing, alternately referred to as The Old Sheepscott Road (with variations on the spelling of Sheepscott, even) or The Old Indian Trail (is it an old trail used by Indians, or a trail for old Indians, I wonder), you would pass a house.  Perhaps two.  The town doctor who eventually went off to work on a missionary medical ship in Africa lived on that road.  After a bit, a very short bit, the trail would shrug off its paving, its attempt to be new-fashioned, and let its dirt shine again.  Well, not shine exactly.

You get the idea.

Down the hill beyond the end of modernity there was a stagnant pool.  Not a pond.  Not the beginnings of a creek or a brooklet.  Nothing special in terms of wildlife.  In fact, there were no substantial species, like fish or birds or rodents, there.

There were slugs.  And microscopic whatcha-ma-call-its galore.  And there were leeches.  Lots and lots of leeches.

From time-to-time that is where our biology class would troop off too.  Best day of school, in my opinion.  I didn’t even care that we had to collect leeches to dissect and mucky water to look at under our microscopes.  We were outside.  I could smell pine needles.  I could feel the gentle wind on my cheek.

Best day ever.

It came as something of surprise, then, when I was assigned to write a Grand Litany for Nature and begin a study of the nature of nature.

God is never without a surprise or two in his pocket.

For me, nature is a grand delight.  An almost magical cocoon filled with sounds and scents and whizzing-bys and leaping deer.

To God, nature is an entire matter altogether.

To God, nature is his response.  He created.  And nature was created.  If God sang us into creation, as I’ve read recently, then nature is his song.  And it is more than an accumulation of all the varieties of animal and plant and mineral.  Much more.

It is a living whole.  

The most stupendous vision about nature that I was given was how Nature cooperated with Jesus in his water miracles.  Working with, or stimulated by, the Holy Spirit, it was Nature’s hand that held his feet as he walked to Peter.

It was the Holy Spirit, leading Nature, that worked with Jesus to change the water into wine.

To God, Nature is his infinite, “yes.”  He commands, Nature complies.

Call and response.  The perfect relationship.

Man, of course, wants none of this easy compliance business.  Especially not with God.

Do we carry our eviction from Eden as a chip on our shoulder, do you suppose?

Who knows.

What I do know is that man thinks science is completely his own.  That as he works his work Nature is standing on the outside of the laboratory looking in.  As though Nature wasn’t leading him by the nose to every discovery made.  (It isn’t much of a discovery to Nature, now is it?  Everything is already known to her.)

We don’t even want to think of ourselves as part of nature mostly because we have the illusion that we have the ability to say, “no,” to God.  To Nature.  To life.

We’re not like Nature, giving of herself so completely that harm is threatening to change her very nature.

We are in the process of modifying the nature of nature.

Did you know that there is a gas trapped at the bottom of the ocean?  This gas, to man, is very toxic.  If (or when) our planet continues to increase the temperature of the Earth’s surface, the ice that keeps this gas trapped will melt, the gas will be released, and we will all die.

Just like that.

It has happened four or five times already throughout Earth’s history.

Nature even has the ability to counteract significant threats to her existence.

We like to think of ourselves as first.  First in nature.  Able to kill the lion.  Able to soar through the air.  Able to fill the oceans with plastic.

We’re really, really big.

And we’re so important on Earth that Nature can do nothing about it.  We can have our way.

She has to say, “yes,” to us.

We forget, don’t we?, that behind this creation is God.  And we don’t want to acknowledge that Nature is his partner in creation.

We may be a part of that partnership.  But we’re just a part.

I began to assemble a few tiny, tiny litanies, stringing together little poems, sometimes children’s poems, about the categories: earth, mountains and hills, plants, water, sea creatures, birds, beasts, humans.  But I most certainly didn’t take the work seriously.  Just a sweet pastime.  Then I lost my hard-drive.  I lost the little litanies.  And I lost interest.

But lately, I keep finding something about that work in my hand.

Like sitting under an oak tree and having acorns drop on my head, I’m being brought back to attention on the matter.

Except I have one question, Just What Is A Grand Litany On Nature?  And how am I supposed to write one?  (Fine, two questions.)

I suppose I should go and sit by a stagnant pool of water and see what I can see.

Amen.

NATURE: Wuthering Heights, by Peter Milward

From A Poetic Approach to Ecology

There is something innately spiritual about the wind.  It is something we cannot see.  It is without shape or color, by which it might affect our eyes.  It is only to be seen in its effects, as when it moves the trees and makes their branches sway to and fro.

In the same way, it cannot be heard.  It has no sound of its own which might affect our ears.  It is only to be heard in its effects, as when it creates a singing or rustling noise in the trees and thus uses them as its lyre – just as the breath from our lungs passes through our throat and mouth in the formation of words.

But now, I ask, is what I have just said of the wind really true?  Does the wind really make no sound of its own?  Then what of the phenomenon of “wuthering,” as used in the title of Emily Bronte’s famous novel, Wuthering Heights?  This is a word not to be found in the average English dictionary, coming as it does from the northern dialect where it means the noise and rush of the wind.  In this case, it can hardly refer to the sound made by the wind through the trees, as the whole point of the heights, or Yorkshire moors, where the novel has its setting, is that there are no trees or very few of them.  In this case, it seems, the wind makes a sound of its own, a commotion or disturbance in the air that is audible to men on Earth.

Often there is something fearful in the sound.  One easily imagines demonic armies, or what Saint Paul calls “the powers of the air,” on the warpath, and then it is wise for us weak human beings to remain indoors.  The sound is particularly impressive at night, when we also think of such demons as “the powers of darkness.”  It often rises from a low moaning to a fearful shrieking, in which we imagine the spirits of the damned being whirled round the dark Earth by way of prelude to their eternal torments in hell.  Such is the imagination of Shakespeare’s Claudio, as he thinks of such spirits “imprisoned in the viewless winds, and blown with restless violence round about the pendant world.”

On this point, however, I venture to disagree with Shakespeare, or rather with Claudio, as I can’t bring myself to accept such a pessimistic view of what is after all a perfectly natural sound.  At least, without altogether rejecting the dark images that may well be associated with the turmoil of the wind “on a dark and lonely night” (with acknowledgements to Snoopy), I would maintain that they have to be balanced with other images of light.  After all, even in the darkness of night mystics have always recognized the paradoxical presence of divine light – as when the poet Henry Vaughan exclaims: “There is in God (some say) a deep but dazzling darkness.”  And may not this apply not only to the darkness of night but also to the turmoil of the wind?

Yes, I dare to think it may, for all that the Bible says of the prophet Elijah that he found God in the form of a still, small voice or breath of air.  For we know that God may reveal himself in a variety of ways, if we take the biblical accounts at their face value.  And among those ways surely the most impressive is when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the disciples at Pentecost in the form of “a rushing mighty wind.”  Here the very word “rushing” seems to me like an alternative translation of “wuthering.”

But, it may be objected, how can two such different, even opposing images be used of the divine presence without contradiction?  Yes, I admit there is a contradiction in them, but it belongs rather to our human thoughts about God than to God in himself, who is simplicity itself above all contradiction – or what Nicholas of Cusa calls “a reconciliation of opposites.”  On the one hand, there is, it is true, perfect peace and stillness in the divine being, or what T. S. Eliot calls “the still point of the turning world.”  On the other hand, there is this rushing of a mighty wind coming down from above, as a manifestation of divine power at the beginning of the early church.  It all fits in with the above-mentioned definition of “the holy” as uniting in itself what is at once fascinating and fearful.  In the stillness of his infinite depths God fascinates the inmost heart of Man, but in his outer manifestation God also terrifies us with his supernatural presence and power.

Even so, I wouldn’t say that in this outer manifestation there is only fear or terror, any more than there is fear or terror in the “wuthering” on the Yorkshire moors as described by Emily Brontë.  It may be due to a mad strain in my Celtic blood (and, it may be remembered, Emily’s father came from the north of Ireland, as my mother from the south), but whenever I hear such a sound of the wind outdoors, my impulse is not to stay fearfully within but to go out and brave the wind and the rain to do their worst.  Then I feel like the mad Lear when he shouts in the teeth of the tempest, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!  Rage, blow!”

Sadly, living as I do in a big city like Tokyo, such an experience rarely comes my way – whether in the middle of a lonely moor or (preferably) on a small ship in the middle of the wide, wide sea.  Still, I have two such memories that for their very rarity have deeply impressed themselves on my mind.  And on both occasions I was happy to shout aloud the speech of Lear above the storm, secure in the knowledge that I would not be overheard by profane ears.  One was on my first crossing of the English Channel to France in a mighty gale, and the other was on my first crossing of the Pacific Ocean from America to Japan in the middle of a typhoon.

Yes, in such a howling wind – and to my way of thinking, the more it howls, the better – there is a powerful inspiration.  It is as if a Heavenly spirit comes down from above and enters into the human spirit with a mighty impulse that is the source and origin of artistic inspiration.  I even find its presence hinted at in the opening words of Genesis when we read, “darkness was on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters.”  Here by “the deep” and “the waters” I understand the turbulence and turmoil of primeval chaos, in which the Spirit of God is secretly at work to bring about the first creation.  And, I would add, it was amid a similar turbulence and turmoil that the same Spirit descended on the disciples at Pentecost so as to being about a new creation.

This Spirit is, I believe, present and active everywhere in the created world, both in the first and the second, both in the natural and the supernatural creation, sometimes in peace without a sound, sometimes in turmoil as “a rushing mighty wind.”  It is what I find, for example, both in Romeo’s tender, “But soft!  What light through yonder window breaks?” and in Lear’s turbulent, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”  It is again what I find both in Wordsworth’s daffodils “fluttering and dancing in the breeze” and in Shelley’s solemn invocation of the west wind, “O wild West Wind, thou breath of autumn’s being!”

Indeed, of these two manifestations of the divine Spirit, the soft and the strong, the tender and the turbulent, I might say that it is a case of the last coming first.  In the beginning, the divine Spirit has to overcome the turmoil of chaos or disorder both within the world of Nature and in the heart of Man with the breath of creative inspiration.  Then he can proceed to bring about the works of peace in his own good time, just as in Shelley’s ode the strength of the wild west wind is followed by the soft breath of her “azure sister of the spring,” filling “with living hues and odors plain and hill.”

Such is also the variation and succession noted by Gerald Manley Hopkins in his inspired ode on “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”  He emphasizes, on the one hand, the strong mastery of God and, on the other, his tender mercy.  The former he describes in terms of thunder and lightning, as “the sweep and the hurl” that seem to tread him “hard down with a horror of height.”  The latter he goes on to describe in terms of “lovely-asunder starlight” that wafts God out of itself and reveals his mercy as “Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung.”

Yes, both aspects of the divine being, and the divine love, are what we have to feel in our hearts and to realize in our minds.  Otherwise we do both God and ourselves – perhaps ourselves more than God – an injustice.  If all our thoughts concerning God are on what Matthew Arnold calls “sweetness and light,” we will only ironically become, what he himself disparagingly says of Shelley, as it were “a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.”  There is indeed a place for peace in the Heavenly ideal of love, but for its realization on Earth there is also the need of “a rushing mighty wind,” akin to the “wuthering” on the Yorkshire Moors.

WRITING: The Greatest Nature Essay Ever, by Brian Doyle

From Orion

. . . would begin with an image so startling and lovely and wondrous that you would stop riffling through the rest of the mail, take your jacket off, sit down at the table, adjust your spectacles, tell the dog to lie down, tell the kids to make their own sandwiches for heavenssake, that’s why God gave you hands, and read straight through the piece, marveling that you had indeed seen or smelled or heard it articulated that way, and you think, Man, this is why I read nature essays, to be startled and moved like that, wow.

The next two paragraphs would smoothly and gently move you into a story, seemingly a small story, a light tale, easily accessed, something personal but not self-indulgent or self-absorbed on the writer’s part, just sort of a cheerful nutty everyday story maybe starring an elk or a mink or a child, but then there would suddenly be spins on a dime like a skater, and you are plunged into waaay deeper water, you didn’t see it coming at all, and you actually shiver, your whole body shimmers, and much later, maybe when you are in bed with someone you love and you are trying to evade his or her icy feet, you think, My God, stories do have roaring power, stories are the most crucial and necessary food, how come we never hardly say that out loud?

The next three paragraphs then walk inexorably toward a line of explosive Conclusions on the horizon like inky alps.  Probably the sentences get shorter, more staccato.  Terser.  Blunter.  Shards of sentences.  But there’s no opinion or commentary, just one line fitting into another, each one making plain inarguable sense, a goat or even a senator could easily understand the sentences and their implications, and there’s no shouting, no persuasion, no eloquent pirouetting, no pronouncements and accusations, no sermons or homilies, just calm clean clear statements one after another, fitting together like people holding hands.

Then an odd paragraph, this is a most unusual and peculiar essay, for right here where you would normally expect those alpine Conclusions, some Advice, some Stern Instruction & Directions, there’s only the quiet murmur of the writer tiptoeing back to the story he or she was telling you in the second and third paragraphs.  The story slips back into view gently, a little shy, holding its hat, nothing melodramatic, in fact it offers a few gnomic questions without answers, and then it gently slides away off the page and off the stage, it almost evanesces or dissolves, and it’s only later, after you have read the essay three times with mounting amazement, that you see quite how the writer managed the stagecraft there, but that’s the stuff of another essay for another time.

And finally the last paragraph.  It turns out that the perfect nature essay is quite short, it’s a lean taut thing, an arrow and not a cannon, and here at the end there’s a flash of humor, and a hint or tone or subtext of sadness, a touch of rue, you can’t quite put your finger on it but it’s there, a dark thread in the fabric, and there’s also a shot of espresso hope, hope against all odds and sense, but rivetingly there’s no call to arms, no clarion brassy trumpet blast, no website to which you are directed, no hint that you, yes you, should be ashamed of how much water you use or the car you drive or the fact that you just turned the thermostat up to seventy, or what you told the kids and the goat.  Nor is there a rimshot ending, a bang, a last twist of the dagger.  Oddly, sweetly, the essay just ends with a feeling eerily like a warm hand brushed against your cheek, and you sit there, near tears, smiling, and then you stand up.  Changed.

PRAYER: Prayers To Mother Earth

Prayer to Earth Mother
Gaël Razière

Earth Mother
receive in your great bounty
all the blood that has poured over me,
the sorrow that has mired me down.
Let me be free,
so flowers and trees may sprout from me to the heavens,
so birds may come and perch on my wings
and sing their eternal song of gratitude.

Dear Earth Mother,
may your bounty feed the downtrodden,
may you comfort each knee and forehead pressed into your layers,
may la Virgen de Guadalupe’s roses flourish
and the trees that become crosses be strong,
may your robes encompass stars, moon and ocean, day and night
and hold me in its folds, Earth Mother.

Blessed Is Your Name
Helen Weaver

O our Mother the Earth, blessed is your name.
Blessed are your fields and forests, your rocks and mountains, your grasses and
trees and flowers, and every green and growing thing.
Blessed are your streams and lakes and rivers, the oceans where our life
began, and all your waters that sustain our bodies and refresh our souls.
Blessed is the air we breathe, your atmosphere that surrounds us and binds
us to every living thing.
Blessed are all creatures who walk along your surface or swim in your waters
or fly through your air, for they are all our relatives.
Blessed are all people who share this planet, for we are all one family, and
the same spirit moves through us all.
Blessed is the sun, our day star, bringer of morning and the heat of summer,
giver of light and life.
Blessed is the moon, our night lamp, ruler of the tides, protector of all women,
and guardian of our dreams.
Blessed are the stars and planets, the time-keepers, who fill our nights with
beauty and our hearts with awe.
O Great Spirit, whose voice we hear in the wind and whose face we see in the
morning sun, blessed is your name.
Help us to remember that you are everywhere, and teach us the way of peace.

SERMON: Going To Church In The Psalms, by Mark Love

My assignment tonight is “The Character of God in the Psalms.”  Which is a little like speaking on the subject, “Everything That’s Wrong with the Detroit Tigers.”  Where would you start?  Where would you end?  Pitching, defense, hitting, minor leagues, coaching?  This assignment is daunting.

Still, I’m up to the challenge.  Ready?  God is Yahweh, El Shaddai, Elohim, a mighty tower, a rock, a fortress.  Our God is a stronghold, a sure defense.  The Lord of Hosts is a horn of salvation.  The Lord is our light, a warrior, a king, a shepherd, a mother, a vinedresser.  God is an avenger and a healer.  A protector, creator, destroyer.  The Lord is lawgiver and judge, a forger of weapons and their destroyer.  Our God is a shelter in the storm.  God is the storm.  God is a place of peace and rest, and God is the disorienting whirlwind.  Any questions?

I hope you noticed two things from this quick tour of images of God in the Psalms.  The picture we have is rich and diverse.  Simply listing images, however, leaves us still a long way from knowing the nature of God in the Psalms.  But I also want you to notice that the images are so varied, and sometimes so at odds with one another, that it makes you wonder if the psalmists are speaking of the same God.  We have a very difficult task tonight, defining the nature of God in the Psalms.
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SATURDAY READING: Praying In The World, A Case History, by Marvin Barrett

From Parabola

This is an account of the circumstances in my life that led me away and back again to prayer.  Twice

I

If I divided my prayer life into three stages – petitions, intercession, and what came after – petitions stand first.  They were the gut prayers of childhood – praying for a toy, for a pal to play with, to win at ball, for good weather, good health.

Next came childish intercessions introduced by the chilling quatrain of ancient and unknown origin:

Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

This was followed by “God bless mother and father, grandmother and grandfather, and all the other grown-ups.  God bless brother Dirk and all the other children.”  This list was soon augmented by those I grew up among in the Midwestern city that was my home, cousins, uncles and aunts, teachers, neighborhood and schoolyard favorites, and in my case, perhaps not so enthusiastically, my younger brother, Eddie, a recent arrival.  I began my prayers at age three.  Petitions and intercessions flourished, and if I didn’t always get what I asked for, those on my prayer list seemed preserved from serious misadventure.
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POETRY: The Waltz We Were Born For, by Walt McDonald

Wind chimes ping and tangle on the patio.
In gusty winds this wild, sparrow harks hover
and bob—always the crash of indigo
hosannas dangling on strings. My wife tries copper
to turquoise from deserts, and bits of steel
from engines I tear down. She strings them all
like laces of babies’ shoes when the squeal
of their play made joyful noise in the hall.

Her voice is more modest than moonlight,
like pearl drops she wears in her lobes.
My hands find the face of my bride.
I stretch her skin smooth and see bone.
Our children bring children to bless her, her face
more weathered than mine. What matters
is timeless, dazzling devotion—not rain,
not Eden gardenias, but cactus in drought,
not just moons of deep sleep, not sunlight or stars,
not the blue, but the darkness beyond.

THE MECHANICS OF PRAYER: The Elements Of An Answered Prayer

Perhaps I haven’t covered this before.  I can’t remember.  And while having the intention to thumb through past writings, I tend to get distracted by other concerns. (This is known in the English major circle as foreshadowing.)

But even if I’ve covered it, I’m fairly sure I haven’t written this.

(If I have, then here you have it again.)

One of the most incomprehensible things about God, I have found, is his simplicity.  We imagine that the “rules” of God are so complex and vast that just witnessing one would overwhelm us.  Perhaps even to death.

We equate God with infinity.  And with all those “omni’s.”

But the more I have studied God, the more I have come to understand that it is, in general, a study in reduction.  Of taking a lot away.  It’s we, the humans, who complicate things.  Almost to the point of making things unworkable.
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THE CALL: Listening, by Robert Benson

From The Echo Within

My life is a listening.  His is a speaking.
My salvation is to hear and respond.
(Thomas Merton)

It was early fall, and it was late afternoon, and I was walking through old Carolina pines with a new friend.  We were near the ocean, near enough to hear the surf as we walked along a broad path through the forest.

I saw I was with a new friend.  I only spent five days with him, and I had never seen him before and have not seen him since.  He and I were two of about sixty people at a retreat, and I was the speaker.

“I think I am being called to go to seminary,” my new friend said.  “Do you think I am?”

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POETRY: Yard Sale, by Jane Kenyon

Under the stupefying sun
my family’s belongings lie on the lawn
or heaped on borrowed card tables
in the gloom of the garage. Platters,
frying pans, our dead dog’s
dish, box upon box of sheet music,
a wad of my father’s pure linen
hand-rolled handkerchiefs, and his books
on the subsistence farm, a dream
for which his constitution ill suited him.
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POETRY: Washing Sheets in July, by Jane Gentry

Thin clouds work the sheet of sky—
jays cry, flat and starchy.
Against the white garage
hollyhocks flicker.
The sheets, wet, adhesive
as I hang them, smell
of soap and bee-filled air.

Flags of order in the palpable sun,
how they snap in the new breeze!
Watching them balloon on the line,
I swell with an old satisfaction:
I beat them clean in the Euphrates.
Poems half-conceived drift off—
unwritten essays muddle, fade.
The white sheets crack in the wind,
fat bellies of sails,
sweet as round stomachs of children.

Tonight they’ll carry me to sleep
in joy, in peace,
muscles unknotting, tired eyes clearing
in the dark under their lids.
The sheets, fragrant as summer,
carry me into realms of cleanliness,
deep dreams of order.

SOUL STRUCTURE: Evil And Asceticism

Balancing the costs of being a mystic, there are the benefits.  A most unusual approach to understanding reality is one.

For every seen definition of life, there are unseen definitions.  Corners around which reveal if not a completely different reality, than, at the very least, a distinct lens through which to look at it.

It’s a way of thought that most often supplies reasons.  As though God, for the most part, keeps the mechanics of his creation well hidden under the skin of the truth of the matter.  Why he does this is perhaps a study for another mystic.

And I will admit to wondering if knowing some of these hidden natures of things would change the world in any way.

Can’t imagine.
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WORSHIP: Place, by Doris Grumbach

From The Presence of Absence

Most of the faithful give evidence of their belief in public places.  For them, worship is a communal act carried out in a consecrated or holy place where ceremony is predetermined, and the actions and postures of the body – kneeling, bowing, standing, making symbolic signs – are prescribed, almost automatic, so many times in a lifetime have they been performed.  For many, they provide the warm security of unquestioned repetition, for others the outward demonstration of inner conviction.

Worship often begins in small gatherings.  These inevitably expand to require governing bodies which, of necessity, must lead a worldly financial life at some distance from the worshiper in the pew.  Religious institutions, now solidified and hierarchic, justify their existence in many ways.  The most persuasive justification I have come upon is Peter L. Berger’s.  In A Far Glory he holds that “it is the very purpose of any religious tradition [for worship"] to preserve for generations of ordinary people not only the memory of the great founding events but the possibility of replicating them in a much lower key.”  In another place he writes that “religious experience would remain a highly fugitive phenomenon were it not preserved in an institution.  Only the institutionalization of religion allows its transmission from one generation to another.”
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LISTENING: The Gift In Receiving, by Mark Nepo

From Seven Thousand Ways to Listen

Can you hold the door of your tent wide to the firmament? (Lao Tzu)

We usually think of giving as more important than receiving.  Yet only by receiving light can flowers grow into their beauty and pollinate the earth.  Only by absorbing rain can the earth grow what feeds us.  Only by inhaling air can our bodies walk us to each other.  Only by accepting each other’s pain and vulnerability can human strength grow between us.  In these ways, receiving involves absorbing, inhaling, and accepting the life that flows through us, between us, and around us.  These are deeper forms of listening.

On the surface of things, giving and receiving are about exchanges.  I need.  You give.  I feel grateful.  You feel good about yourself.  I feel indebted.  I give back.  We take turns.  But below the surface of things, giving and receiving become indistinguishable, and the aim is not to have or move things from one person to another, but to keep the gift of life flowing.  The pulse of being alive moves like blood circulating in the body, and giving and receiving, like arteries and veins, are both necessary.  For no one organ owns the blood.  Rather, we are of one body.  The gift of life, like blood, must keep flowing, if we are to stay alive.

The difference then between receiving and taking – between taking things in and taking things from – is crucial.  To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with taking something given by another.  But when taking tightens into hoarding, we stop listening, and the imbalance poisons us and those nearby.  We’re always capable of both receiving and taking, and so must guard against being one who just takes and acquires in favor of developing our capacity to take in and transmit the life-force given; to be a conduit rather than a repository.
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PRAYER: The Active Prayer, by Thomas Keating

From Open Mind, Open Heart

The sacred word is designed to lead into silence.  Hence, it should be short – one or two syllables.  The active prayer – an aspiration drawn from scripture for use in daily life – should be longer – five to nine syllables.  The saying of the syllables is synchronized with one’s heartbeat.  While some people like to use a variety of aspirations for this purpose, it is easier to work a single aspiration into the subconscious.  The great advantage of this practice is that it eventually becomes a “tape” similar to the “tapes” that accompany one’s upsetting emotions.  When this occurs, the aspiration has the remarkable effect of erasing the old tapes, thus providing a neutral zone in which common sense or the Spirit of God can suggest what should be done.

The active prayer has to be repeated again and again at free moments in order to work it into the subconscious.  The old tapes were built up through repeated acts.  A new tape can be established in the same way.  It may take a year to establish one’s active prayer in the subconscious.  It will then arise spontaneously.  One may wake up saying it or it may accompany one’s dreams.

Go about this practice without anxiety, haste, or excessive effort.  Do not blame yourself for forgetting to say it on some days; just start up again.  It should not be repeated when your mind is occupied with other things such as conversation, study, or work requiring concentration.

Following are examples of active prayer.

O Lord, come to my assistance.

O God, make haste to help me.

Holy Mary, Mother of God.

Abide in my love.

My God and My All.

My Jesus, mercy.

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SERMON: Transformed Nonconformist, by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2)

“Do not conform” is difficult advice in a generation when crowd pressures have unconsciously conditioned our minds and feet to move to the rhythmic drumbeat of the status quo.  Many voices and forces urge us to choose the path of least resistance, and bid us never to fight for an unpopular cause and never to be found in a pathetic minority of two or three.
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SATURDAY READING: Rain And The Rhinoceros, by Thomas Merton

Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money.  By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market.  The time will come when they will sell you even your rain.  At the moment it is still free, and I am in it.  I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.
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MYSTICISM: Dancing In The Shadows

There was an extended period of time, fairly close to the beginning of my induction into The Serious Work Of Being A Mystic – serious, in spite of having visions (working visions) throughout my childhood – that will perhaps be difficult for anyone else to understand.

In the visions, I was standing in the wings of a stage.  Down at the edge of the stage stood Jesus.  All the spotlights were on him, and he stood there, in every single vision, with his arms open wide to the vast audience before him.  He looked down at them.  He knew every single one of them.  And he addressed them as they addressed him.
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BELIEF: Bright Lights On Dark Nights, by Max Lucado

From Cast of Characters

Afterward Jesus returned to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish holy days.  Inside the city, near the Sheep Gate, was the pool of Bethesda, with five covered porches.  Crowds of sick people – blind, lame, or paralyzed – lay on the porches.  One of the men lying there had been sick for thirty-eight years.  When Jesus saw him and knew he had been ill for a long time, he asked him, “Would you like to get well?”

“I can’t, sir,” the sick man said, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up.  Someone else always gets there ahead of me.”

Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!”
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POETRY: The Idea Of Ancestry, by Etheridge Knight

1

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st and 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know
their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,
they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.
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POETRY: Body & Soul, by Judith Valente

When you enter the world, you come to live on the threshold between the visible and invisible. (John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes)

Imagine those moments
after the soul leaves the body.
Imagine the body’s immense
loneliness: a manse suddenly
shorn of its single boarder. A child
banging its fists against the living
room window, begging for its mother
to Come back!
as the car jerks out of the driveway
—for all the child knows, forever—
and there’s that awful last glimpse:
back of a head growing smaller, smaller
through the rear windshield.
This is why we should stay
close to the body after death,
the way we used to hold wakes, at home
and around the clock, until the body adjusts
to its noiseless status, widowed rooms.
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HUMANITY: Shame

My favorite movie of all time is The Nun’s Story, a thinly veiled autobiography of a woman who did her best at being a nun during World War II.

She is the daughter of a brilliant doctor, was raised at his knee, and grew up learning all about medicine.  Her passion was for tropical medicine.

Eventually, she is allowed to go to tropical medicine nursing school in order to fulfill her dream of being an African missionary.

While there, she is under a Mother Superior with very unusual ideas of her own.  There will only be room for four nuns to be sent to the Congo.  The Nun (the heroine) is sure to be one of them.  The Mother Superior, who feels deeply for all her nuns (kind of), pities one of them who is struggling through the course.  If she passes, it will be by a very thin margin.  The Mother Superior asks The Nun to cheat on her exams, fail on purpose, in order to make a place for The Failing Nun.

It will be an act of humility.  Of sacrifice.  Of martyrdom.
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CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER: Behold!, by Carl McColman

From Answering the Contemplative Call

“The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything,” said Julian of Norwich.  This simple statement not only provides an important clue to the heart of mystical spirituality; it also points to the centrality of beholding as the essential contemplative practice.  Our longing for God arises out of God’s love for us – a love that beckons us to this fullness of joy, by inviting us to behold God in all.
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AUTHENTICITY: Cultivating Authenticity — Letting Go of What People Think, by Brené Brown

From The Gifts of Imperfection

Often people attempt to live their lives backwards: they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier.  The way it actually works is the reverse.  You must first be who you really are, then do what you really need to do, in order to have what you want. (Margaret Young)

Before I started doing my research, I always thought of people as being either authentic or inauthentic.  Authenticity was simply a quality that you had or that you were lacking.  I think that’s the way most of us use the term: “She’s a very authentic person.”  But as I started immersing myself in the research and doing my own personal work, I realized that, like many desirable ways of being, authenticity is not something we have or don’t have.  It’s a practice – a conscious choice of how we want to live.

Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day.  It’s about the choice to show up and be real.  The choice to be honest.  The choice to let our true selves be seen.
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PEACE: Living Toward A Vision, by Walter Brueggemann

From Peace

I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.  Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and the vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your bread to the full, and live securely in your land.  And I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid; I will remove dangerous animals from the land, and no sword shall go through your land. (Leviticus 26:4-6)
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SATURDAY READING: Jesus, The Model Of Nonviolence, by John Dear

From Disarming the Heart 

Imagine the scene.  Jesus is preaching in a crowded synagogue on the Sabbath.  Suddenly he notices, sitting way in the back, a man with a withered hand.  Jesus stops.  He calls out to the man, “Stand up!  Come out here in the middle.”

The poor man stands up and comes up front to the middle near Jesus where he can be seen by everyone.  Looking around the room, Jesus asks, “Is it against the law on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil?  To save life or to kill?”

No one answers.

Jesus then says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”

The man obeys.  He is healed.
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POETRY: Amazing Peace, by Maya Angelou

Read by the poet at the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, Washington, D.C., December 1, 2005

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Floodwaters await in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and gray and threatening.
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