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Theme:
Wisdom in Times of Crisis

Wisdom in Times of Crisis

Saturday, July 11, 2020
Summary: Sunday, July 5—Friday, July 10, 2020

The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But the mystery of transformation more often happens not when something new begins, but when something old falls apart. (Sunday)

We’re here for one thing, ultimately: to learn how to love, because God is love. Love is our origin, love is our ground, and love is our destiny. —James Finley (Monday)

Job’s religious friends and advisers have correct theory but no experience; thoughts about God, but no love of God. They believe in their theology; Job believes in the God of their theology. (Tuesday)

Who we are is held in the love of God from before time; and as we lean into that now in life and taste it, we’ll be prepared to really see death as the fullness of being and not as the lessening of it. —Cynthia Bourgeault (Wednesday)

As we experience discomfort in this time, let’s begin to dream of a new normal, a new normal that addresses the weaknesses and problems that were going unaddressed in the old normal. If we’re wise, we won’t go back; we’ll go forward. —Brian McLaren (Thursday)

As a spiritual practice, we can wake up to the possibility of building a new order. We can improvise those possibilities; try them out in the creative microcosm of a shared public life, realizing that our way of life before the pandemic was not perfect. —Barbara Holmes (Friday)

 

Practice: The Wisdom of Poetry

When I consider the call to contemplative awareness and solidarity offered by CAC teachers this week, I cannot think of a better practice than the exquisite poem “Pandemic” from poet and minister Lynn Ungar. It was written in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States before most of us were asked to stay at home. Even in those first moments, she envisioned a way of responding to the crisis with love, not fear. The wisdom of this poem goes far beyond the circumstances of the pandemic. May it serve as a guide as we embark on the work ahead of us— striving to eradicate the “viruses” of white supremacy and systemic injustice in the United States and the world.

Pandemic
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love—
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
—Lynn Ungar 3/11/20

Reference:
Lynn Ungar, “Pandemic.” Used with permission. You can read more of Lynn’s poetry and learn about her work at http://www.lynnungar.com.

For Further Study:
Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1996)

Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern (Franciscan Media: 2020)

The full set of CAC faculty videos Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020) is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLiBbqGAOPnXMeKh7QaqCf9HU5ShaAEzeH

Image credit: Cueva de las Manos (detail), Cañadón del Río, Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photograph copyright ©️ 2012 Pablo Gimenez.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: As a spiritual practice we can wake up to the possibility of building a new order. We can improvise those possibilities; try them out in the creative microcosm of a shared public life, realizing that our way of life before the pandemic was not perfect. —Barbara Holmes
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Wisdom in Times of Crisis

Social Renewal as Spiritual Practice
Friday, July 10, 2020

CAC Faculty member Dr. Barbara Holmes points us to the interwoven nature of love— love of God, of self, and of neighbor. We cannot keep the Great Commandment without fully engaging in all three. In her wisdom, she sees this time of crisis as an opportunity for a great re-imagining of our society and how it might function for the good of all. Barbara says:

The practice I’m focusing on is self-love and love of neighbor. We tend not to be very good at either one, but during this time of isolation, we have equal opportunities to rest and to heal, to love and be loved. . . .

For me a spiritual practice that matters includes social renewal. Instead of blaming others about the state of our union, instead of blaming one political party or another, we actually can reflect on our own complicity and support of systems that abandoned the poor, warehoused our children in failing schools, and failed to provide adequate health care, even under normal circumstances. As a spiritual practice, we can wake up to the possibility of building a new order. We can improvise those possibilities; try them out in the creative microcosm of a shared public life, realizing that our way of life before the pandemic was not perfect. It could be improved so that all members of the society thrive. We’ve received reports that COVID-19 is disproportionally impacting communities of color. There are many reasons for this outcome, including the fact that people of color often have chronic health problems that make them particularly vulnerable to the disease as a result of poverty, poor or nonexistent health care, and economic disparities.

We should reconsider the contours of our national social contract. Our social and economic systems work on a zero-sum game where there are winners and losers. It didn’t have to be that way. We have the opportunity to restructure society, so it works as well for the have-nots and the almost-haves as well as it does for the wealthy. Do we really want a society organized to support the rich with the toiling of an underclass of marginalized laborers? Do we believe that it is every man, every woman for themselves, or do we want a society safety net for those who have fewer options and fewer resources?

From an article I wrote titled “Still on the Journey,” I believe that as a spiritual practice we can imagine and create “a political system responsive to the people and respectful of global neighbors, a health system that is comprehensive in scope and not profit driven, an educational system shaped by innovation, improvisation, technology, and practicality.” [1] The pandemic [and widespread demonstrations for Black Lives] have lifted the veil from our eyes.

Can we be honest now about what is not working? Can we re-envision new options? I believe that we can, if we want to.

References:
[1] Barbara A. Holmes, “Still on the Journey: Moral Witness, Imagination, and Improvisation in Public Life,” Ethics That Matters: African, Caribbean, and African American Sources, eds. Marcia Y. Riggs and James Samuel Logan (Fortress Press: 2012), 238.

From Barbara A. Holmes, “Love of Neighbor and the Practice of Social Renewal,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (May 4, 2020), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4qfQckPJWE&list=PLiBbqGAOPnXMeKh7QaqCf9HU5ShaAEzeH&index=10.

Image credit: Cueva de las Manos (detail), Cañadón del Río, Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photograph copyright ©️ 2012 Pablo Gimenez.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: As a spiritual practice we can wake up to the possibility of building a new order. We can improvise those possibilities; try them out in the creative microcosm of a shared public life, realizing that our way of life before the pandemic was not perfect. —Barbara Holmes
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Wisdom in Times of Crisis

Our Spiritual Health
Thursday, July 9, 2020

Brian McLaren, a member of the CAC Living School faculty, reminds us why it matters that we pay attention to our health, not only physically but spiritually and ethically as well.

In these challenging, difficult times, we are discovering a wisdom that we needed all along, and that wisdom is that we are all connected. We are not separate. We used to think that we caught diseases as individuals: “I’m sick; you’re not.” But now we realize, no, we catch diseases as individuals who are part of families, and families who are part of cities, and cities that are part of states and nations. We realize now that our whole species can become infected, and that our whole globe can be changed because of our interconnectedness. . . .

Maybe this is also an opportunity for us to become enlightened about some other viruses that have been spreading and causing even greater damage, without being acknowledged: social and spiritual viruses that spread among us from individual to individual, from generation to generation, and are not named. We don’t organize against them, and so they continue to spread and cause all kinds of sickness [and death]. Social and spiritual viruses like racism, white supremacy, human supremacy, Christian supremacy, any kind of hostility that is spread, based on prejudice and fear.

What would happen if we said, as passionate as we are about being tested for coronavirus, we all wanted to test ourselves for these social and spiritual viruses that could be lurking inside of us? And then, when I come into your presence, I, in some way, inflict this virus on you. I make you suffer. What an awesome opportunity for us to say and begin to pray that we would be healed and cleansed, not just of a physical virus, but of these other invisible viruses that are such a huge and devastating part of human history. . . .

In this pandemic, many of us are nostalgic for the old normal. We want to get back to our favorite coffee shop, our favorite restaurant, our church service. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with so many of those desires for the old normal. But I’d like to make a proposal. If we are wise in this time, we will not go back unthinkingly to the old normal. There were problems with that old normal many of us weren’t aware of.

The old normal, when you look at it from today’s perspective, was not so great, not something to be nostalgic about, without also being deeply critical of it. As we experience discomfort in this time, let’s begin to dream of a new normal, a new normal that addresses the weaknesses and problems that were going unaddressed in the old normal. If we’re wise, we won’t go back; we’ll go forward.

References:
From Brian McLaren, “We Are All Connected,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (April 20, 2020), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FOeCyEzbjM;

“Other Sicknesses of the Soul,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (May 6, 2020), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3SUyoDfG-Q&list=PLiBbqGAOPnXMeKh7QaqCf9HU5ShaAEzeH&index=17; and

“Dreaming of a New Normal,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (May 6, 2020), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=weGPpvdZ058&list=PLiBbqGAOPnXMeKh7QaqCf9HU5ShaAEzeH&index=18.

Image credit: Cueva de las Manos (detail), Cañadón del Río, Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photograph copyright 2012 Pablo Gimenez.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: As a spiritual practice we can wake up to the possibility of building a new order. We can improvise those possibilities; try them out in the creative microcosm of a shared public life, realizing that our way of life before the pandemic was not perfect. —Barbara Holmes
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Wisdom in Times of Crisis

Dying Before We Die
Wednesday, July 8, 2020

CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault addresses a fear that motivates all of us on some level—the fear of death. It is a matter of true wisdom to know how to face death wisely and courageously, which is why every religion and culture since the beginning of time has tried to “make sense” of it in some way. From her home off the coast of Maine, Cynthia shares these words, which come from the very heart of the Christian tradition.

What is the wisdom that matters now? For me, it’s the Paschal Mystery [the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Christ]. . . . Simply, the one who would save his life or her life will lose it and the one who’s willing to lose it, will save it. In all great religious traditions, this is the eye of the needle. Everything that’s good, everything that’s abiding, everything that’s worthy, everything that’s generative about a human being arises on the other side of our fear of death. . . . The whole tradition we’ve had of “dying before you die” sounds like martyrdom from the outside, but what you really discover is, it’s the gateway to freedom.

Jesus within our own Christian path not only tried to point toward what this new life is, but he also took us there and left us with the promise that he carries this, that he takes it on. Any one of us who summons the great courage within us to gird up our loins and die before we die are not left unaccompanied. It’s on the other edge of that that we’re really set free to courage, to compassion, and to generosity—this is where the Paschal Mystery begins to come in.

The values that are called the fruits of the Spirit by St. Paul—gentleness and peace and forbearance, compassion, love, joy—these are alchemical products that grow on the other side of the human being not afraid to die. We can find and collectively draw on those wonderful gifts. But it requires the personal willingness (as the old monks in the desert said), to “sit in your cell and ponder the hour of your death” until you’ve really worked through your system what this promise means: “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” [Romans 14:8]. . . . With that, having moved from something nice you recite on Sundays to something you know in the marrow of your bones, then you walk into the planet as a vessel of love and nothing can touch you.

To the extent that we live our life from the heart now with utter integrity, death proves to be no interruption to identity. . . . Who we are is held in the love of God from before time; and as we lean into that now in life and taste it, we’ll be prepared to really see death as the fullness of being and not as the lessening of it.

References:
From Cynthia Bourgeault, “The Gateway to Freedom,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (May 4, 2020), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2gBJOCyxG4; and

“Death Is the Fullness of Being,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (May 6, 2020), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGukuIA5lcU.

Image credit: Cueva de las Manos (detail), Cañadón del Río, Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photograph copyright 2012 Pablo Gimenez.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: As a spiritual practice we can wake up to the possibility of building a new order. We can improvise those possibilities; try them out in the creative microcosm of a shared public life, realizing that our way of life before the pandemic was not perfect. —Barbara Holmes
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Wisdom in Times of Crisis

The Wisdom of Job
Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Theology does not by itself provide wisdom in crisis. All theology must become a living spirituality to really change us or the world. It’s disappointing that we Christians have emphasized theology, catechism, and religious education much more than prayer and practice. The biblical book of Job is probably one of the greatest books on prayer that has ever been written. It breaks our stereotypes of what it means to communicate with God.

If we view Job’s story as a journey into an ever-deepening encounter with God, we keep the question of suffering from becoming an abstract debate observed at a distance. It is a text that only fully makes sense to those who’ve felt suffering, been up against the wall, at a place where, frankly, God doesn’t make sense anymore and we no longer believe “God has a plan.”

Job loses his livelihood, his savings, his family, and his health. His practical, religious friends appear as self-appointed messengers, to speak what they are sure is God’s answer to Job’s suffering. They offer the glib, pious platitudes of stereotypical clergy. What they do is try to take away the mystery, but they cannot solve the problem. God says you cannot solve the problem of suffering, you can only live the mystery. The only response to God’s faithfulness is to be faithful ourselves.

Most of the things Job says to God in his pain are not what Christians have been trained to say to God. The pretty words are mostly gone; there’s no “swirly talk,” as writer-pastor Molly Baskette calls it [1], that Christians so love to put in their prayers. Instead, Job dares to confront God, the very thing many of us were trained never to do. In fact, we called it blasphemy.

During Job’s crisis, he yells at God, accuses God of all kinds of things, speaks sarcastically, and almost makes fun of God. “If this is a game you’re playing, then you’re not much of a God! I don’t need you and I don’t want you!” It’s this kind of prayer that creates saints. Yet we can’t pray with that authority unless we know something experientially about God. We can’t pray that way unless we are assured at a deep level of the profound connection between ourselves and God. It takes one who has ventured into that arena where we say angels fear to tread.

Ultimately Job’s story reveals that God cannot really be known through theology and law. God can only be related to and known in relationship, just like the Trinity itself. Or, as the mystics assert, we know God by loving God, trusting God, and placing our hope in God. We cannot really “think” God.

Job’s religious friends and advisers have correct theory but no experience; thoughts about God, but no love of God. They believe in their theology; Job believes in the God of their theology. It is a big difference. The first is information; the second is wisdom.

References:
[1] Molly Phinney Baskette, Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can, Too (The Pilgrim Press: 2014), 130.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1996), 13, 47–49, 140–141.

Image credit: Cueva de las Manos (detail), Cañadón del Río, Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photograph copyright 2012 Pablo Gimenez.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: As a spiritual practice we can wake up to the possibility of building a new order. We can improvise those possibilities; try them out in the creative microcosm of a shared public life, realizing that our way of life before the pandemic was not perfect. —Barbara Holmes
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Wisdom in Times of Crisis

Sustained in God’s Love
Monday, July 6, 2020

In the light of eternity, we’re here for a very short time, really. We’re here for one thing, ultimately: to learn how to love, because God is love. Love is our origin, love is our ground, and love is our destiny. —James Finley

CAC faculty member James Finley offers a contemplative practice to help us experience the love of God even in the midst of chaos. Living out of that love transforms both ourselves and the world.

What is the practice that matters now? A practice is any act habitually entered into with our whole heart that takes us to the deeper place. Some of these practices, we might not think of as prayer and meditation: tending the roses, a long, slow walk to no place in particular, a quiet moment at day’s end, being vulnerable in the presence of that person in whose presence we’re taken to the deeper place, the pause between two lines of a poem. There are these acts that reground us in the depth dimensions of our life that matter most; so if we’re faithful to our practice, our practice will be faithful to us. . . .

In this contemplative practice, sit and renew your awareness that you’re sitting in the presence of God all about you and within you. As you inhale, inhale God’s silent “I love you,” in which God is being poured out and utterly given away to you as the miracle of your very life. Then when you exhale, exhale yourself in love: “I love you.” And so, we are breathing [along with God], “I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.” From the reciprocity of love, destiny is fulfilled, and the foundations of suffering are healed.

As we sit this way, suffering arises. The suffering then might be our anxiety and concerns today, for ourselves, for our loved ones, for the world. As we sit in the midst of the arising of the anxiety, when we inhale, we inhale this love of God loving us through and through, anxiety and all, finding no hindrance in our anxiety, loving us so unexplainably forever. Then when we exhale, we exhale ourselves in love, anxiety and all, to the love that loves us. This requires gentle perseverance, because anxiety arises again. It doesn’t automatically go away. We sit with it, we lean into it again, and we hold fast to this love that sustains us in the midst of things. It is in this way, little by little, that we come to understand the unsubstantiality of everything but love. Love and love alone has the authority to name who we are.

This practice, then, experientially grounds us in this love wisdom. This love wisdom—grounded in practice—empowers us to go out and share this with other people in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

References:
From James Finley, “Practice That Grounds Us in the Sustaining Love of God,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (April 26, 2020), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-A16N4hKou0.

Epigraph: “Renewing That in Us Which Sees the Light,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (April 20, 2020), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4I3RVlPCEtE.

Image credit: Cueva de las Manos (detail), Cañadón del Río, Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photograph copyright 2012 Pablo Gimenez.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: As a spiritual practice we can wake up to the possibility of building a new order. We can improvise those possibilities; try them out in the creative microcosm of a shared public life, realizing that our way of life before the pandemic was not perfect. —Barbara Holmes
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Wisdom in Times of Crisis

Change Is Inevitable
Sunday, July 5, 2020

The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But the mystery of transformation more often happens not when something new begins, but when something old falls apart. The pain of something old falling apart—chaos—invites the soul to listen at a deeper level, and sometimes forces the soul to go to a new place. Most of us would never go to new places in any other way. The mystics use many words to describe this chaos: fire, dark night, death, emptiness, abandonment, trial, the Evil One. Whatever it is, it does not feel good and it does not feel like God.

We will normally do anything to keep the old thing from falling apart, yet this is when we need patience and guidance, and the freedom to let go instead of tightening our controls and certitudes. Perhaps Jesus is describing just this phenomenon when he says, “It is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14). Not accidentally, he mentions this narrow road right after teaching the Golden Rule. He knows how much letting go it takes to “treat others as you would like them to treat you” (Matthew 7:12).

While change can force a transformation, spiritual transformation always includes a disconcerting reorientation. It can either help people to find new meaning or it can force people to close down and slowly turn bitter. The difference is determined precisely by the quality of our inner life, our practices, and our spirituality. Change happens, but transformation is always a process of letting go, living in the confusing, shadowy space for a while. Eventually, we are spit up on a new and unexpected shore. You can see why Jonah in the belly of the whale is such an important symbol for many Jews and Christians.

In moments of insecurity and crisis, shoulds and oughts don’t really help. They just increase the shame, guilt, pressure, and likelihood of backsliding into unhealthy patterns. It’s the deep yeses that carry us through to the other side. It’s that deeper something we are strongly for—such as equality and dignity for all—that allows us to wait it out. It’s someone in whom we absolutely believe and to whom we commit. In plain language, love wins out over guilt any day.

At the Center for Action and Contemplation, we are blessed with a core faculty that comes from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. We are from northern and southern States, the Midwest and the coasts, celibate and married, male and female, Black and white, Protestant and Catholic. Each of us speaks out of our commitment to practices of spiritual transformation drawn from the Christian contemplative tradition. This week I want to share some wisdom for times of crisis from these friends and teaching colleagues: Cynthia Bourgeault, James Finley, Barbara Holmes, and Brian McLaren. I hope they can serve as guides to your own internal yes to love.

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern (Franciscan Media: 2020), 84–85.

Image credit: Cueva de las Manos (detail), Cañadón del Río, Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photograph copyright 2012 Pablo Gimenez.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: As a spiritual practice we can wake up to the possibility of building a new order. We can improvise those possibilities; try them out in the creative microcosm of a shared public life, realizing that our way of life before the pandemic was not perfect. —Barbara Holmes
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