Lesson Five: You Are Going To Die

Reality Initiating Us: Part One

Lesson Five: You Are Going To Die
Friday, April 3, 2020

The surprise of surprises is that although everybody who has ever lived in this world has died, for some reason, we think we won’t. —Hindu aphorism

Jesus did not once tell us to worship him; he only told us to follow him on the necessary three-day journey that Christians celebrate during Holy Week. And “three days” did not necessarily mean Friday to Sunday. It is a classic initiatory phrase for going the distance or the full cycle. The transformational journey of death and resurrection is the only—and always denied—message. It really is the way we are saved.

However, death, in any form, is perceived as the great human enemy. We construct much of our lives to avoid it, delay it, and deny it. It seems that we are not ready to die, until we have truly lived. Ironically, people who touch upon real life are the ones who can also let go of it. It is the people who have not yet begun to live who fear death the most. True insight has not happened to them yet, which leaves them without a center, foundation, or even primal desire. Their core has not been touched and so they have nothing to harken back to or look forward to or anything to trust deeply within. They are afraid. And we must be honest that this is much of humanity.

In initiation rites, some ritual of death and resurrection was the centerpiece. This is probably why Jesus sought out and submitted to the death and rebirth ritual of John the Baptist at the Jordan River. It is probably why he kept talking to his disciples, three times in Mark’s Gospel, about the necessity of this death journey, and why three times they changed the subject (8:31–10:45). It is undoubtedly why he finally stopped talking about it, and just did it, not ritually but for real.

The genius of ancestors who practiced initiation ceremonies is that they exposed and revealed the truth about pain in a sacred space, which makes all the difference in the world. Now pain is no longer a scary unknown, an unfortunate mistake, something we must change, but maybe an entranceway! As Eckhart Tolle says, “You do not need to be a Christian to understand the deep universal truth that is contained in symbolic form in the image of the cross.” [1] Before such transformative images, the worst things can become the best things.

The initiation instinct realized that facing one’s death was the ultimate encounter with the sacred. Walking through one’s fear of the last thing becomes an encounter with the first thing. A person is then free to live, often for the first time outside of their head or their fear. Death encounters seem to be the primary way to build or rebuild a real life. Then life itself, in all its depth and beauty, becomes the unquestionable gift.

References:
[1] Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks (New World Library: 2003), 127.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation, (Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004), 92, 94, 100, 102–103.

Image credit:  Agony (The Death Struggle) (detail), Egon Schiele, 1912, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image:
1. Life is hard.
2.You are not important.
3. Your life is not about you.
4. You are not in control.
5. You are going to die.

 

Lesson Four: You Are Not In Control

Reality Initiating Us: Part One

Lesson Four: You Are Not In Control
Thursday, April 2, 2020

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. —Dag Hammarskjöld

To be in control of one’s destiny, job, or finances is nearly an unquestionable moral value in Western society. The popular phrase “take control of your life” even sounds mature and spiritual. It is the fundamental message of nearly every self-help book. On a practical level, it is true, but not on the big level. Our bodies, our souls, and especially our failures teach us this as we get older. We are clearly not in control, as this pandemic is now teaching the whole planet. It is amazing that we need to assert the obvious.

Learning that we are not in control situates us correctly in the universe. If we are to feel at home in this world, we have to come to know that we are not steering this ship. That teaching is found in the mystical writings of all religions. Mystics know they are being guided, and their reliance upon that guidance is precisely what allows their journey to happen. We cannot understand that joy and release unless we’ve have been there and experienced the freedom for ourselves.

In my life I have found the mystic teachings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) helpful for living into this truth. She was a master teacher who was never afraid of presenting humiliating evidence about herself. She called this her “little way.” As she so brilliantly put it, “If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, you will be for [Jesus] a pleasant place of shelter.” [2] What gives religion such a bad name is that most religious people are eager to be pleasing to themselves, and want to be a part of a “big way.”

Being willing to be “displeasing to ourselves,” or to allow our autonomous ego’s needs to take a back seat to the larger field of love, is part of what it means to not be in willful control.

Gerald May (1940–2005), one of my own teachers, very helpfully contrasts willingness with willfulness:

Willingness implies a surrendering of one’s self-separateness, an entering-into, an immersion in the deepest processes of life itself. It is a realization that one already is a part of some ultimate cosmic process and it is a commitment to participation in that process. In contrast, willfulness is a setting of oneself apart from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control, or otherwise manipulate existence. [1]

For many of us, this may be the first time in our lives that we have felt so little control over our own destiny and the destiny of those we love. This lack of control initially feels like a loss, a humiliation, a stepping backward, an undesired vulnerability. However, recognizing our lack of control is a universal starting point for a serious spiritual walk towards wisdom and truth.

Please join me in trying to be faithful to that walk, even as we pray for God’s mercy for those who suffer, and especially the most marginalized.

References:
[1] Gerald May, Will and Spirit (Harper & Row: 1982), 6.

[2] Thérèse of Lisieux, Christmas letter to Sister Geneviève (December 24, 1896). See Collected Letters of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. F. J. Sheed (Sheed and Ward: 1949), 265.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation, (Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004), 67–68, 70.

Epitaph from Dag Hammarskjöld, Journal entry (Whitsunday, 1961), Markings, trans. Leif Sjōberg and W. H. Auden (Alfred A. Knopf: 1964), 205.

Image credit:  Agony (The Death Struggle) (detail), Egon Schiele, 1912, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image:
1. Life is hard.
2.You are not important.
3. Your life is not about you.
4. You are not in control.
5. You are going to die.

Lesson Three: Your Life Is Not About You

Reality Initiating Us: Part One

Lesson Three: Your Life Is Not About You
Wednesday, April 1, 2020

After any true initiating experience, we know that we are a part of a much bigger whole. Life is not about us, but we are about life. We are not our own. We are an instance of a universal and even eternal pattern. Life is living itself in us. We have been substituting the part for the whole! This message is an earthquake in the brain, a hurricane in the heart.

Accepting that our lives are not about us is a Copernican revolution of the mind, and it is just as hard for each individual today as it was for earthbound humans when they discovered that our planet was not the center of the universe. It takes a major and monumental shift in consciousness, and it is always given and received with major difficulty. It comes as an epiphany, as pure grace and deliverance, and never as logic or necessary conclusion.

Understanding that our lives are not about us is the connection point with everything else. It lowers the mountains and fills in the valleys that we have created, as we gradually recognize that the myriad forms of life in the universe are merely parts of the one life that most of us call God. After such a discovery, we are grateful to be a part—and only a part! We do not have to figure it all out, straighten it all out, or even do it perfectly by ourselves. We do not have to be God. It is an enormous weight off our backs. All we have to do is participate!

After this epiphany, things like praise, gratitude, and compassion come naturally—like breath. True spirituality is not taught; it is caught once our sails have been unfurled to the Spirit. Henceforth our very motivation and momentum for the journey toward holiness and wholeness is immense gratitude for already having it!

I am convinced that the reason Christians have misunderstood many of Jesus’ teachings is because we did not understand his pedagogy. Jesus’ way of education was intended to situate his followers to a larger life, which he called his “Father,” or what we might call today God, the Real, or Life. When we could not make clear dogma or moral codes out of Jesus’ teaching, many Christians simply abandoned it in any meaningful sense. For this reason, the Sermon on the Mount—the essence of Jesus’ teaching—seems to be the least quoted by Christians. We sought a prize of later salvation, instead of the freedom of present simplicity.

My life is not about me. It is about God. It is about a willing participation in a larger mystery. At this time, we do this by not rejecting or running from what is happening but by accepting our current situation and asking God to be with us in it. Paul of Tarsus said it well: “The only thing that finally counts is not what human beings want or try to do, but the mercy of God” (Romans 9:16). Our lives are about allowing life to “be done unto us,” which is Mary’s prayer at the beginning and Jesus’ prayer at the end.

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation, (Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004), 60–64, 66.

Image credit:  Agony (The Death Struggle) (detail), Egon Schiele, 1912, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image:
1. Life is hard.
2.You are not important.
3. Your life is not about you.
4. You are not in control.
5. You are going to die.

Lesson Two: You Are Not Important

Reality Initiating Us: Part One

Lesson Two: You Are Not Important
Tuesday, March 31, 2020

O God, if I worship you in fear of hell, burn me in hell. If I worship you in hope of paradise, shut me out from paradise. But if I worship you for your own sake, do not withhold from me your everlasting beauty. —Rábi‘a (717–801), Islamic mystic and poet

When we are willing to be transformed, we stop wasting time theorizing, projecting, denying, or avoiding our own ego resistance. The true spiritual teacher is not afraid to give us a dose of humiliation. If we immediately balk at some minor blow to our ego, the teacher knows that no basic transformation into our True Self has taken place yet. It takes a masterful teacher or mentor to teach us that we are not important. Otherwise, reality itself teaches us: painful life situations have to dismantle us brick by brick, decade by decade.

Jesus knew that he needed to destabilize a person’s false, separate self before they could understand that they had a True Self, but destabilizing our security systems and our ego is always a hard sell. He says, “What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world and lose their soul?” (Luke 9:25). Typically, it is the prophets who deconstruct the ego and the group, while priests and pastors are supposed to reconstruct them into divine union. As God said in the inaugural vision to Jeremiah: “Your job is to take apart and demolish, and then start over building and planting anew” (Jeremiah 1:10).

True master teachers, like Jeremiah and Jesus, are both prophets and pastors, which is why their teaching is almost too much for us. They both deconstruct and reconstruct. But the only reason they can tell us that we are not important is because they also announce to us our infinite and unearned importance. Maybe the reason we have to be reminded of the first truth is because we no longer believe the second. We no longer allow our separate self to be humiliated because we no longer believe in the Great Self.

Our personality and self-image are all we have.

Every parable or spiritual riddle, every one of Jesus’ confounding questions is intended to bring up the limitations of our own wisdom, power, or tiny self. If we have not yet touched upon our essence, we will continue to build up ego structures in defense of our momentary form. Most Westerners no longer tolerate it when our small selves are ignored, subverted, or humiliated. We appear to be lost in a whirlwind of images, all passing and changing week by week.

With all of us globally experiencing our common vulnerability to this virus we can learn the lesson that we are one in our humanity. No one is more important than anyone else. Powerlessness is the beginning of wisdom, as the Twelve-Steppers say. All we can finally do is pray that we allow the flow of the Spirit’s very presence within us. If there is no living water flowing through us, then we must pray for the desire for it to flow! Once the desire for something more is stirred and recognized, it is just a matter of time. Nothing less will ever totally satisfy us again.

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation, (Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004), 54–56, 59.

Epitaph adapted from Translations of Eastern Poetry and Prose, Reynold A. Nicholson (Cambridge University Press: 1922), 135–136.

Image credit:  Agony (The Death Struggle) (detail), Egon Schiele, 1912, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image:
1. Life is hard.
2.You are not important.
3. Your life is not about you.
4. You are not in control.
5. You are going to die.

Lesson One: Life Is Hard

Reality Initiating Us: Part One

Lesson One: Life Is Hard
Monday, March 30, 2020

You have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired before recovery can begin.
—Twelve Step Wisdom

All great spirituality is about what we do with our pain. Creation has a pattern of wisdom; and we dare not shield ourselves from it, or we literally will lose our soul. We can obey commandments, believe doctrines, and attend church services all our lives and still daily lose our souls if we run from the necessary cycle of loss and renewal. Death and resurrection are lived out at every level of the cosmos, but only one species thinks it can avoid it—the human species.

I am afraid that many of us with privilege have been able to become very naïve about pain and suffering in the United States and the Western world. We simply don’t have time for it. However, by trying to handle all suffering through willpower, denial, medication, or even therapy, we have forgotten something that should be obvious: we do not handle suffering; suffering handles us— in deep and mysterious ways that become the very matrix of life and especially new life. Only suffering and certain kinds of awe lead us into genuinely new experiences. All the rest is merely the confirmation of old experience.

It is amazing to me that the cross or crucifix became the central Christian logo, when its rather obvious message of inevitable suffering is aggressively disbelieved in most Christian countries, individuals, and churches. We are clearly into ascent, achievement, and accumulation. The cross became a mere totem, a piece of jewelry. We made the Jesus symbol into a mechanical and distant substitutionary atonement theory instead of a very personal and intense at-one-ment process, the very reality of love’s unfolding. We missed out on the positive and redemptive meaning of our own pain and suffering. It was something Jesus did for us (substitutionary), but not something that revealed and invited us into the same pattern. We are not punished for our sins, we are punished by our sins (such as blindness, egocentricity, illusions, or pride).

It seems that nothing less than some kind of pain will force us to release our grip on our small explanations and our self-serving illusions. Resurrection will always take care of itself, whenever death is trusted. It is the cross, the journey into the necessary night, of which we must be convinced, and then resurrection is offered as a gift.

In this time of suffering we have to ask ourselves, what are we going to do with our pain? Are we going to blame others for it? Are we going to try to fix it? No one lives on this earth without it. It is the great teacher, although none of us want to admit it. If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it in some form. How can we be sure not to transmit our pain onto others?

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation, (Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004), 35–39.

Image credit:  Agony (The Death Struggle) (detail), Egon Schiele, 1912, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image:
1. Life is hard.
2.You are not important.
3. Your life is not about you.
4. You are not in control.
5. You are going to die.

The Patterns That Are Always True

Richard Rohr introduces this week’s Daily Meditation theme on “Reality Initiating Us,” addressing our current global crisis as a collective initiation experience which we are all undergoing.

Reality Initiating Us: Part One

The Patterns That Are Always True

Sunday, March 29, 2020

In this time of global crisis, it may be that reality is revealing itself to us—through great suffering—universal patterns that are always true. A little over fifteen years ago, I wrote a book called Adam’s Return that focused on male initiation rites. These are the sacred rituals in indigenous cultures that marked the symbolic growth of a self-referential boy to a generative, compassionate man. While that book was written specifically for men, it seems to me that reality is “initiating” all of us to know and live by these same essential truths. This week I will be trying to present this global crisis as a global initiation into what matters and what lasts.  Now women need this essential initiation just as much as men. 

The work of sacred rituals like initiation was to situate life in a bigger frame, so nature, beauty, suffering, work, sexuality, and ordinary moments were seen to have transcendent significance. They gave life meaning— the one thing the soul cannot live without. Heaven and earth have to be put together or this world never becomes home. That integration is the necessary human and spiritual task, at which initiation rites succeeded, probably on a much broader scale than modern churches.

Initiation was always, in some form, an experience of the tension and harmony of opposites: of loss and renewal, darkness and light, the cycle of seasons, death and resurrection, yin and yang, the paschal mystery. Somehow initiates had to see the wide screen and, at least for a moment, find goodness and meaning in what was offered right in front of them, which is all we can love anyway. Universally, early cultures insisted on large doses of separation, silence, looking, listening, and various kinds of suffering.

In my cross-cultural research on male initiation rites, I perceived five consistent lessons or truths communicated to the initiate, meant to separate initiates from their attachment to who they think they are and reattach them to who they really are.

In this time of global disruption, these lessons can help us align to reality, our own belonging in it, and remain grounded in the infinitely trustworthy presence of God.

These five essential messages of initiation are:
1. Life is hard.
2. You are not important.
3. Your life is not about you.
4. You are not in control.
5. You are going to die.

You may be shocked by the seemingly negative character of these five truths. Most Western postmodern people are, but there’s no way around these truths, hard as they may be.  In fact, one could say much of the superficiality of our world is because we stopped growing up men. We will be exploring these five lessons in this week’s Daily Meditations and their positive spiritual counterparts the following week. None of this is easy work. We typically want to flee from our current anxiety, grief and pain, but I encourage you to stay with these messages. They are truths for your soul that can help you find meaning and a sense of God’s compassionate presence inside of the chaos.

References: 

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation, (Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004), 29–30, 32–34.

Image credit:  Agony (The Death Struggle) (detail), Egon Schiele, 1912, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image:
1. Life is hard.
2. You are not that important.
3. Your life is not about you.
4. You are not in control.
5. You are going to die.

The Path of Descent: Weekly Summary

The Path of Descent

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Summary: Sunday, March 22-Friday, March 27, 2020 

I am not alone in my tiredness or sickness or fears, but at one with millions of others from many centuries, and it is all part of life. —Etty Hillesum (Sunday)

We abandon the self-improvement project and instead surrender to the Holy Fire. –Mirabai Starr (Monday)

But crisis doesn’t just happen to individuals. . . . It also happens to communities, particularly when a community shatters on the anvil of injustice.  –Barbara Holmes (Tuesday)

The Compassionate One is our gracious friend, and we don’t have to earn anything, deserve anything, achieve anything, or merit anything to bring our needs to God. –Brian Mclaren (Wednesday)

After years of being taught that the way to deal with painful emotions is to get rid of them, it can take a lot of reschooling to learn to sit with them instead. –Barbara Brown Taylor (Thursday)

Love has you. Love is you. Love alone, and your deep need for love, recognizes love everywhere else. (Friday)

Practice: Following Life’s Rules

The spread of COVID-19 is requiring most of us to make significant changes to our lifestyles, at least temporarily. While not everyone has the privilege of more time off and many would prefer to work for needed economic reasons, I do believe it is possible for each of us to make conscious choices about how to spend any “downtime” we may have. We might look to the wisdom of author Ellen Laconte in her book  Life Rules.

Ancient humans did not have to practice restraint. They had neither the technical capacity nor the cultural habits of excess. Indigenous cultures, living much closer to the Earth than we do, have traditionally passed the habit of restraint from one generation to the next [since] restraint in consumption, behavior, lifeways and relationships also confers survival advantage to the tribe.

When the word is used to describe truly sustainable relationships with provisions and resources, “restrained” is equivalent to “frugal”: being careful with the fruits of the Earth and of ones’ labors. The ancients and long-lasting indigenous cultures are habitually frugal.

“Simplify, simplify, simplify,” were Henry David Thoreau’s three rules for living a life in harmony with Nature, that is, within our own and Earth’s means. . . . Wanda Urbanska, author of several books on simplicity including 2010’s  The Heart of  Simple Living  explained that, “Simple Living’s four tenets are: environmental stewardship, thoughtful consumption, community involvement and financial responsibility.” Though the scale of our simplification and restraint will have to be as grand and far reaching as the scale of our complexification and consumption have been, engaging in these four practices would lead us,  Urbanska suggested, in the direction of living  good lives  rather than “goods lives.”

Humans have balked at both voluntary and involuntary frugality ever since greed and wealth have been an option. On the other hand, we have also often found peace of mind, freed time and a sense of belonging, self-worth and accomplishment when we have taken frugality up with the same passion with which we sought wealth. The desire to survive may stir that passion in us when we fully realize that doing more of what we have been doing is fatal.

One of the ways we can practice restraint is to follows Life’s pattern of downtimes, using day/night and seasonal cycles like premodern societies did, as opportunities:

  •  To refurbish and repair tools, equipment, buildings, infrastructures and community and intercommunity relationships
  • To both help and allow bodies and ecosystems to renew themselves
  • To refresh and expand the community’s base of knowledge
  • To reflect on successes and failures and decide what needs to be done differently

These activities can be seen as investment in personal, family and community well-being rather than time off. . . . Ecological economist Herman Daly calls the process of building in downtimes “fallowing,” letting land regenerate after a period of cultivation. “Fallowing is investment in short-term non-production in order to maintain long-term yields” and is exemplified in the ancient Hebrew’s  Jubilee.

References:

Adapted from Ellen Laconte, “Life Rules: Nature’s Blueprint for Surviving Economic and Environmental Collapse,” (New Society Publishers: 2012).

For Further Study:

Etty Hillesum,  An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork (Henry Holt and Company: 1996).
Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Augsberg Fortress Publications: 2017)

Brian D. McLaren, Naked Spirituality (HarperOne: 2011)

Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019)

Richard Rohr, A Spring Within Us: A Book of Daily Meditations (CAC Publishing: 2016)

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self  (Jossey-Bass: 2013)

John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, trans. Mirabai Starr (Riverhead Books: 2002)

Image credit: Agitated Sea at Étretat, Claude Monet, 1883, Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon, France. 
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The “cross,” rightly understood, always reveals various kinds of resurrection. It’s as if God were holding up the crucifixion as a cosmic object lesson, saying: “I know this is what you’re experiencing. Don’t run from it. Learn from it, as I did. Hang there for a while, as I did. It will be your teacher. Rather than losing life, you will be gaining a larger life. It is the way through.” As impossible as that might feel right now, I absolutely believe that it’s true. —Richard Rohr

Love Is Stronger than Death

The Path of Descent

Love Is Stronger than Death

Friday, March 27, 2020 

The Path of Descent is very real and usually very painful, but something else is equally true. Love is both who we are and who we are still becoming, like a sunflower seed that becomes its own sunflower. It seems to be a fully cooperative effort according to St. Paul (Romans 8:28), and according to my limited experience too. God never coerces us toward life or love by any threats whatsoever. Yes, God seduces us, but coercion? Never (see Jeremiah 20:7; Matthew 11:28–30). Whoever this God is, he or she is utterly free. Love cannot happen any other way. Love flourishes inside freedom and then increases that freedom even more.

We are all allowed to ride life and love’s wonderful mystery for a few years—until life and love reveal themselves as the same thing, which is the final and full message of the risen Christ—life morphing into a love that is beyond space and time. God literally “breathes” shalom and forgiveness into the universal air (John 20:22–23). We get to add our own finishing touches of love, our own life breath to the Great Breath, and then we return the completed package to its maker in a brand-new but also same form.

I believe the meaning of the Resurrection of Jesus is summed up in the climactic line from the Song of Songs, “love is stronger than death” (8:6). If the blank white banner that the Risen Christ usually holds in Christian art should say anything, it should say: “Love will win!” Love is all that remains. Love and life are finally the same thing, and we know that for ourselves once we have walked through death.

Love has you. Love is you. Love alone, and your deep need for love, recognizes love everywhere else. Remember that you already are what you are seeking. Any fear “that your lack of fidelity could cancel God’s fidelity, is absurd” (Romans 3:3), says Paul. Love has finally overcome fear, and your house is being rebuilt on a new and solid foundation. This foundation was always there, but it takes us a long time to find it. “It is love alone that lasts” (1 Corinthians 13:13). All you have loved in your life and been loved by are eternal and true.

Reference:

Adapted from Richard Rohr,  Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self  (Jossey-Bass: 2013), 176–178

Image credit: Agitated Sea at Étretat, Claude Monet, 1883, Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon, France. 
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The “cross,” rightly understood, always reveals various kinds of resurrection. It’s as if God were holding up the crucifixion as a cosmic object lesson, saying: “I know this is what you’re experiencing. Don’t run from it. Learn from it, as I did. Hang there for a while, as I did. It will be your teacher. Rather than losing life, you will be gaining a larger life. It is the way through.” As impossible as that might feel right now, I absolutely believe that it’s true. —Richard Rohr

The Dark Emotions

The Path of Descent

The Dark Emotions
Thursday, March 26, 2020

Author and Episcopal priest Barbara Taylor Brown invites us to consider the lessons that suffering has to teach us and reminds us that we can only learn when we are willing to stay put instead of turning away.

[Psychotherapist Miriam] Greenspan says that painful emotions are like the Zen teacher who whacks his students with a flat board right between their shoulder blades when he sees them going to sleep during meditation. If we can learn to tolerate the whack—better yet, to let it wake us up—we may discover the power hidden in the heart of the pain. Though this teaching is central to several of the world’s great religions, it will never have broad appeal, since almost no one wants to go there. Who would stick around to wrestle a dark angel [see Genesis 32:22-31] all night long if there were any chance of escape? The only answer I can think of is this: someone in deep need of blessing; someone willing to limp forever for the blessing that follows the wound.

What such people stand to discover, Greenspan says, is the close relationship between “individual heartbreak and the brokenheartedness of the world.” [1] While those who are frightened by the primal energy of dark emotions try to avoid them, becoming more and more cut off from the world at large, those who are willing to wrestle with angels break out of their isolation by dirtying their hands with the emotions that rattle them most.

In this view, the best thing to do when fear has a neck hold on you is to befriend someone who lives in real and constant fear. The best thing to do when you are flattened by despair is to spend time in a community where despair is daily bread. The best thing to do when sadness has your arms twisted behind your back is to sit down with the saddest child you know and say, “Tell me about it. I have all day.” The hardest part about doing any of these things is to do them without insisting that your new teachers make you feel better by acting more cheerful when you are around. After years of being taught that the way to deal with painful emotions is to get rid of them, it can take a lot of reschooling to learn to sit with them instead, finding out from those who feel them what they have learned by sleeping in the wilderness. . . .

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,” Carl Jung wrote, “but by making the darkness conscious.” [2] Reading this, I realize that in a whole lifetime spent with seekers of enlightenment, I have never once heard anyone speak in hushed tones about the value of endarkenment.

What a compelling word and question it invites us to consider: endarkenment. What are we learning about ourselves, each other, and even God through these times? What are we only now coming “to know” through this time of not-knowing? 

Reference:

[1] Miriam Greenspan, as quoted in Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (HarperOne: 2014), 85.

[2] Carl Jung, as quoted in ibid., 86.

Adapted from Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, (HarperOne: 2014), 85-86, 88

Image credit: Agitated Sea at Étretat, Claude Monet, 1883, Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon, France. 
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The “cross,” rightly understood, always reveals various kinds of resurrection. It’s as if God were holding up the crucifixion as a cosmic object lesson, saying: “I know this is what you’re experiencing. Don’t run from it. Learn from it, as I did. Hang there for a while, as I did. It will be your teacher. Rather than losing life, you will be gaining a larger life. It is the way through.” As impossible as that might feel right now, I absolutely believe that it’s true. —Richard Rohr

Praying in Crisis  

The Path of Descent

Praying in Crisis
Wednesday, March 25, 2020 

CAC faculty member Brian McLaren is an author and contemplative activist. He spent over twenty years as the pastor of a church where he lived, worked, and prayed with people in good times and bad. Responding to crises is not theoretical for him, but a deeply felt and lived experience which comes through so clearly in these words. I hope you will feel encouraged to take this practice to your own time of prayer in the days, weeks, and months ahead.  

When we call out for help, we are bound more powerfully to God through our needs and weakness, our unfulfilled hopes and dreams, and our anxieties and problems than we ever could have been through our joys, successes, and strengths alone. . . .  [1]

Anxieties can gray the whole sky like cloud cover or descend on our whole horizon like fog. When we rename our anxieties, in a sense we distill them into requests. What covered the whole sky can now be contained in a couple of buckets. So when we’re suffering from anxiety, we can begin by simply holding the word help before God, letting that one word bring focus to the chaos of our racing thoughts. Once we feel that our mind has dropped out of the frantic zone and into a spirit of connection with God, we can let the general word help go and in its place hold more specific words that name what we need, thereby condensing the cloud of vague anxiety into a bucket of substantial request. So we might hold the word guidance before God. Or patience. Or courage. Or resilience. Or boundaries, mercy, compassion, determination, healing, calm, freedom, wisdom, or peace. . . . [2]

Along with our anxieties and hurts, we also bring our disappointments to God. If anxieties focus on what might happen, and hurts focus on what has happened, disappointments focus on what has not happened. Again, as the saying goes, revealing your feeling is the beginning of healing, so simply acknowledging or naming our disappointment to God is an important move. This is especially important because many of us, if we don’t bring our disappointment to God, will blame our disappointment on God, thus alienating ourselves from our best hope of comfort and strength. . . .

Whether we’re dealing with anxieties, wounds, disappointments, or other needs or struggles, there is enormous power in simple, strong words—the words by which we name our pain and then translate it into a request to God. Help is the door into this vital practice of petition, through which we expand beyond our own capacities and resources to God’s. . . .

Through this practice of expansion and petition, we discover something priceless: the sacred connection can grow stronger through, not in spite of, our anxieties, wounds, disappointments, struggles, and needs. The Compassionate One is our gracious friend, and we don’t have to earn anything, deserve anything, achieve anything, or merit anything to bring our needs to God. We can just come as we are. [3]

References:

[1] Brian D. McLaren, Naked Spirituality (HarperOne: 2011), 104.
[2] Ibid., 116–117.
[3] Ibid., 119–120.

Image credit: Agitated Sea at Étretat, Claude Monet, 1883, Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon, France. 
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The “cross,” rightly understood, always reveals various kinds of resurrection. It’s as if God were holding up the crucifixion as a cosmic object lesson, saying: “I know this is what you’re experiencing. Don’t run from it. Learn from it, as I did. Hang there for a while, as I did. It will be your teacher. Rather than losing life, you will be gaining a larger life. It is the way through.” As impossible as that might feel right now, I absolutely believe that it’s true. —Richard Rohr
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