Theme:
The Path of Descent

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

Read Full Entry

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
Read Full Entry

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
Read Full Entry

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
Read Full Entry

The Path of Descent

Crisis Contemplation
Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The curtailing of individual freedom to live, move, and work may be a new experience for some of us—but is familiar to communities who have suffered from oppression for centuries. By necessity, they have developed ways of coping with fear and uncertainty on an individual and communal level. During the CONSPIRE 2018 conference, Living School faculty member Dr. Barbara Holmes shared some of her experience working with the path of descent.  

During crisis, individuals put to sleep the light of rationality, and descend during dark nights of the soul. As William Shannon puts it, “We darken and blind the exterior self and awaken to the inner self as we grow closer to God.” [1]

But crisis doesn’t just happen to individuals. . . . It also happens to communities, particularly when a community shatters on the anvil of injustice. Crisis contemplation . . . is [the] point of spiritual and psychic dissolution. Shattering events that create the crisis displace the ordinary until the suffering reaches the point of no return. We are bereft. We are unable to articulate the extent of our suffering or even to reintegrate our fractured meaning structures. And so, the descent begins, and we are in free fall toward the center of our being. . . .

In my book Joy Unspeakable, I use the black community’s experience of slavery as an extreme example of crisis contemplation, a breaking of extraordinary magnitude. When the crisis is communal, communities may be victimized by systems because of immutable traits like race, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity or fluidity, class, political or social differences, real or imagined, and more. When communities are in crisis, first comes the fear. Perhaps you’re Harriet Tubman hiding and trying to make it to Canada with your community, or you’re a person of color today, wondering when the powers that be will decide to put you in the same foil blankets and cages that they’re currently using for Mexican babies.

After the fear comes the cruelty and the oppression along with the wondering, “Where is God?” Here’s the rub: even as a member of an oppressed community, you’re always an individual, but during a crisis of this magnitude, you do not have the luxury of responding as an individual. Suffering [of community in crisis] cannot be absorbed by individuals, no matter how tenuous and invisible the bonds of community are. Individuals cannot respond. You must do it as community, for safety, for comfort, and for survival.

I want to echo her final point here: We cannot face large-scale crises as individuals; we cannot carry the pain of this reality on our own, nor can we only look out for ourselves. The pain is communal and so too must be the response. 

References:
[1] William H. Shannon, Thomas Merton’s Paradise Journey: Writings on Contemplation (St. Anthony Messenger Press: 2000), 136. See Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Augsberg Fortress Publications: 2017), 7. Text used in Daily Meditation is author’s paraphrase.

Adapted from a presentation by Barbara Holmes at CONSPIRE 2018.

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
Read Full Entry

The Path of Descent

The Path of Descent
Monday, March 23, 2020

The CONSPIRE 2018 conference focused on the Path of Descent as the Path of Transformation. Suffering is a universal experience occurring across space and time, revealing the “big T” Truth that going down, going through, and going into the unknown can be powerfully transformative. In the meditations this week I will be sharing the wisdom offered by my fellow teachers at the CAC, whom I also call my friends. I hope you will trust their insights as you seem to trust my own. Today, Mirabai Starr shares a breathing practice and a reading from John of the Cross (1542–1591). Don’t hurry through it with your intellectual mind; allow it to do its work in your heart and body as well. 

Welcome to the descent. As we slip down deeper and deeper, I invite you to remember . . . that it is not in perfection that we reach the divine, but through the gateway of our mistakes and our suffering. . . .

Let’s take three deep breaths. I invite you to breathe all the way in and hold your inhalation for a while, for as long as you can, holding that inhalation before letting it all go and holding the exhalation. [Do this] three times at your own pace, paying attention to every nuance of your breath as you inhale, hold, exhale and hold, noticing especially the empty space of the out breath.

As you breathe, feel your attention pouring into the container of this moment so that you fully inhabit your own dear body in this precious moment. [You have] nowhere else to go, nothing to accomplish, [you are giving] yourself the . . . gift of being fully present and resting right here.

From Dark Night of the Soul (Noche Oscura del Alma):

The divine is purifying contemplation, and the human is the soul. The divine lays siege upon the soul in order to make her new and to make her divine, stripping her of habitual affections and attachments to the old self to which she had been reconciled. The Divine disentangles and dissolves her spiritual substance, absorbing it in deep darkness. In the face of her own misery, the soul feels herself coming undone and melting away in a cruel, spiritual death. 

Man says, the soul feels as if she herself were coming to an end. David calls out to God: ‘Save me, Lord, for the waters have come in even unto my soul. I am trapped in the mire of the deep. I have nowhere to stand. I have come unto the depth of the sea, and the tempest has overwhelmed me. I have labored in my cry. My throat has become raw, and my eyes have failed while I hope in my God.’ [Psalm 69:2–4] . . .  [1]

We abandon the self-improvement project and instead surrender to the Holy Fire. Allowing your breath to be the touchstone of your meditation and contemplation, allow yourself to rest for a few minutes in the stillness.

Reference:

[1] John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, trans. Mirabai Starr (Riverhead Books: 2002), 103, 105–106.

Adapted from a presentation by Mirabai Starr at CONSPIRE 2018.

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
Read Full Entry

The Path of Descent

Suffering in Solidarity

Sunday, March 22, 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 [1]

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.

When we carry our own suffering in solidarity with humanity’s one universal longing for deep union, it helps keep us from self-pity or self-preoccupation. We know that we are all in this together. It is just as hard for everybody else, and our healing is bound up in each other’s. Almost all people are carrying a great and secret hurt, even when they don’t know it. This realization softens the space around our overly-defended hearts. It makes it hard to be cruel to anyone. It somehow makes us one—in a way that easy comfort and entertainment never can.

I believe—if I am to believe Jesus—that God is suffering love. If we are created in God’s image, and if there is so much suffering in the world, then God must also be suffering. How else can we understand the revelation of the cross? Why else would the central Christian logo be a naked, bleeding, suffering divine-human being? The image of Jesus on the cross somehow communicates God’s solidarity with the willing soul. A Crucified God is the dramatic symbol of the one suffering that God fully enters into with us—much more than just for us, as many Christians were trained to think.

If suffering, even unjust suffering (and all suffering is unjust on some level), is part of one Great Mystery, then I am willing to carry my little portion. Etty Hillesum (1914–1943), a young, Dutch, Jewish woman who died in Auschwitz, truly believed her suffering was also the suffering of God. She even expressed a deep desire to help God carry some of it. How many people do you know who feel sorry for God and want to “help” God within us?  She has a stronger sense of the Divine Indwelling within her than most Christians I have ever met:

And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. [2]

Such freedom and generosity of spirit are almost unimaginable to me. What creates such altruistic and loving people? Perhaps this season of disruption will offer us some clues. I certainly hope so.

References:
[1] Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork  (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 157.

[2] Ibid., 178.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe  (Convergent: 2019), 160, 161–162; and

A Spring Within Us: A Book of Daily Meditations (CAC Publishing: 2016), 122.

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
Read Full Entry
FacebookTwitterEmailPrint