Monday, February 28, 2011

Illusion-piercing insight

Artist: Simon Alexandre-Clément Denis

One of the reasons I've had something of a bumpy road along the way regarding my life within the institutional church is that I've often been expected to preach and teach a domesticated God and I simply will not do it; in fact, I don't really think I'm capable of doing it. Here's something that expresses what I mean here rather well:

Unfortunately, religion often works to shrink and tame the very wild and mysterious forces that first drew our wonder. In the process of making the inexplicable safe for the masses, the possibilities for real illusion-piercing insight becomes reduced. One might say that they are only available to those who dare to ride the breaking crest of direct life-altering experience.

-- Stephen K. Hayes

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Our search for the holy

Artist: Anna Munthe-Norstedt

I really like the spiritual writings of Macrina Wiederkehr. Here's a brief passage from her book, Seasons of Your Heart:
In our search for the holy, there are times when our restless preparations smother the very truth for which are searching. We decorate our rooms and make elaborate preparations for our prayer, when a single flower and a moment of waiting are all we need to meet the One Who Comes.
You know, many people are resistant to the idea of spending some time in meditation each day. I think it is because they believe the dedicated time needs to be long. I start meditation students off with literally one minute of giving relaxed attention to something beautiful. Yes, we do gradually build up to longer sittings but if one minute with a single flower each day is all a person does, it will be very beneficial.

I also really like Wiederkehr's name for the Divine here: the One Who Comes. It seems to me that this name is a great respecter of Mystery as well as a reminder that there is so much that we just don't know or understand.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Something about self-acceptance

Artist: John Singer Sargent

You know, I agree with this:

I don't like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless and it isn't of much value. Life hasn't revealed its beauty to them.

~Boris Pasternak

So why do people beat themselves up so badly because they've fallen or stumbled? That saddens me when I observe it. I wonder if they realize that they would not be very likeable at all if they were as perfect as they wish to be.

Friday, February 25, 2011

This transitory life

Artist: Vladimir Kormout

I bless the day I discovered the works of John O'Donohue, the Irish poet-philosopher who died much too soon in 2008. Although his writing is luminously beautiful when simply experienced in print, I recommend the recordings of him reading his own work as the best introduction to his thought and verbal artistry.

Here are several passages about impermanence and time that are good springboards for contemplation:
Transience is the force of time that makes a ghost of every experience. There was never a dawn, regardless how beautiful or promising, that did not grow into a noontime. There was never a noon that did not fall into afternoon. There was never an afternoon that did not fade toward evening. There never was a day yet that did not get buried in the graveyard of the night. In this way transience makes a ghost out of everything that happens to us.
On its outer surface time is vulnerable to transience. Regardless of its sadness or beauty, each day empties and vanishes. In its deeper heart, time is transfiguration. Time minds possibility and makes sure that nothing is lost or forgotten. That which seems to pass away on the surface of time is in fact transfigured and housed in the tabernacle of memory.
Your soul is the priestess of memory, selecting, sifting, and ultimately gathering your vanishing days toward presence.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

An open window

Artist: Ekaterina Iliynskaya

This is a marvelous articulation of how icons are vehicles for us not only of devotion but also of insight:

The figure in the icon is not meant to represent literally what Peter or John or any of the apostles looked like, or what Mary looked like, nor the child, Jesus. But, the orthodox painter feels, Jesus of Nazareth did not walk around Galilee faceless. The icon of Jesus may not look like the man Jesus two thousand years ago, but it represents some quality of Jesus, or his mother, or his followers, and so becomes an open window through which we can be given a new glimpse of the love of God.

-- Madeleine L'Engle

Monday, February 21, 2011

Something about believing

Artist: Viktor Vasnetsov

Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?

-- Yann Martel (from Life of Pi)

(Just to put the above quotation in context, you might like to read about Life of Pi right here.)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Redemption and the human condition

Hello, friends. I want to tell you about something I found this morning that moves me very much although I realize it will not be some folks' cup of tea exactly.

Over on YouTube there are several videos of Handel's Messiah staged in operatic form. It's filmed from a live 2009 performance in Vienna. The various scenes depict the human condition as experienced in various situations - grief, anxiety, despair, confusion, joy, redemption - using symbolic props, movement, dance and sign language for the deaf. I thought I was not going to like it but the more I watched video after video, the more deeply moved I found myself becoming.

It helps that the chorus and orchestra are truly magnificent and the musical interpretation is very much in line with how I've been trained in baroque playing and singing. Nevertheless, one must be willing to experience this as theater - and theater in a very stylized form as well.

Here's one of the simpler scenes:

Here is the first one that I watched:

And here is another one that I think is very moving:

There are more.

In case you don't already know this, you can click on the title of an embedded video and it will take you directly to the where it is posted on the YouTube site. There you will find the others on the sidebar.
UPDATE: I just found the DVD of this production on Amazon right here. Please do click through and read the first review - the one written on Christmas Day. It gives you more information about everything to do with this staged version.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Can we purify our thoughts?

Hmmmm. Here's something that cthat conveys a lot of wisdom:isciple cameo the celebrated Master of the Good Name with a question. “Rabbi, how are we to distinguish between a true master and a fake?” And the master of the good name said, “When you meet a person who poses as a master, ask him a question: whether he knows how to purify your thoughts. If he says that he knows, then he is a fake."

A disciple came to the celebrated Master of the Good Name with a question. “Rabbi, how are we to distinguish between a true master and a fake?” And the master of the good name said, “When you meet a person who poses as a master, ask him a question: whether he knows how to purify your thoughts. If he says that he knows, then he is a fake."

-- Elie Wiesel

Yes, we can try to purify our thoughts. We will not succeed. The master who does not know this is not a master.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gratitude and oblation

Artist: Christopher Rådlund

I don't think I've recommended the website recently. Let me hereby remedy that situation. It was founded by the contemplative monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, whom I've sincerely admired for many years now. There's a wonderful feature for lighting a virtual candle (among other riches you can find on the site) and also a Word for the Day. Here is today's "word":

Even if I should be locked up in a narrow cell and a cloud should drift past my small barred window, then I shall bring you that cloud, Oh God, while there is still the strength in me to do so.

-- Etty Hillesum

Back in the early days of my own monastic commitment, I made a practice of actively seeking out concentration camp stories. I was (still am) particularly interested in how people respond to the extremes of the human experience. Etty Hillesum definitely became one of my heroes.

May she be one of yours as well.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The goal of dancing

Artist: Auguste Renoir

Over the years, I have had a number of luminous, numinous dreams in which I was dancing with a partner. In each of these dreams I experienced such indescribable happiness that, upon awakening, I knew that my dance was indeed with the Lord of the Dance.

And so you will understand why I really like this:

God wants to dance with us. The goal of dancing is NOT to learn the steps. The goal of dancing is to enjoy your partner. We learn the steps but only so we don't have to look down at our feet. We are free to look into the eyes of the one we love.

-- Nicole Johnson

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Generative Mystery

Artist: Thomas Moran

I was captivated by the word, "godfulness" which is partly why I'm offering this quotation today. But then I also really like the word "generative". And then, again, I love this last sentence here:

Godfulness is simply recognizing the primacy of a presence of love, spaciousness, grace, generativity, caring, and creativity in the world and in myself. How can a mere financial crisis compare to that? The Generative Mystery cannot go bankrupt. It is not subject to scarcity. We never run out of God.

-- David Spangler

Friday, February 11, 2011

On miracles

Artist: Yakov Kapkov

I think if we took the following to heart, a large portion of the seeming conflict between religion and science would dissolve: not so much upon...healing power coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that, for a moment, our eyes can see....what is there around us always.

-- Willa Cather

And this one:

Miracles do not happen in contradiction to nature, but only in contradiction to that which is known to us of nature.

-- St. Augustine

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Where is God?

Artist: Walter Gramatté

Oh, my. It is a very short quotation that I'm bringing you today but it is one that pierces my heart - truly.

O Lord, I am further away from me than from You!

-- Sorin Cerin

I am happy to have found the quotation. Happy, as well, to have found out about its author.

This quotation reminds me that St. John of the Cross emphasized the teaching that to know oneself is to know God. He was not at all saying that the self is identical to God. No, he was saying that the only obstacle to knowing God is the self.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Truly a keeper of a prayer

Artist: Viktor Vasnetsov

I'm choosing to cross post today, dear people, because this beautiful prayer is so, so good. (Yes, I posted this over on The Anchorhold as well today.) My dear priest friend, Wilma (from South Africa - currently serving in California), sent me the following:
Eternal One,
from whom my words come;
from whom my questions arise;
of whom all my loves are hints;
in whom alone I find my rest;
in whose depths I find healing and myself;
enfold me now in your presence;
restore to me your peace;
renew me through your power;
and ground me in your grace.
This is so powerful, isn't it? I know it's going to offer me many, many hours of reflection and contemplation.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Existence and meaning

Artist: Joseph Mallord William Turner

I was in my 20s, I think, when I first came across the wonderful book, Markings by the late U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold. This work had a profound and lasting effect on me. It is his journal, actually, and is mostly a collection of his own fairly short meditations and sayings. Here's one of my favorites:
I don't know Who - or what - put the question, I don't know when it was put. I don't even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone - or Something - and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple

The detail above of Simeon and Anna recognizing the savior is from a larger work by the 14th century artist Lorenzetti Ambrogio. You can see the complete work right here.

This day is also known as Candlemas. It commemorates the occasion when St. Simeon recited the Nunc Dimittis. I'm offering you a translation in English and the truly ethereal setting by Rachmaninoff:

Lord, now Thou lettest Thy servant depart,
According to Thy word, in peace.
For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation
Thou has prepared before the face of all people,
A Light to illuminate the Gentiles
And the glory of Thy people Israel.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Perception and Shadowlands

Artist: Childe Hassam

Ever since I took my first philosophy class and spent some time studying epistemology, I have trained myself to sit loose to the idea that human perception necessarily gives us accurate information about reality:

Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air.

-- Herman Melville

May we remember, then, to cultivate a willingness to embrace the mystery of what is.