Archive for September, 2019

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Embodiment, Part 1

 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. John 1:3-4

In order to reflect on our death and dying, I want to start by sharing my view on how our earthly lives begin. I vainly claim this to be “my” view, although as with all of “my” thoughts, they are far from original to me. I borrow heavily from many contemplative authors and teachers, including Fr. Richard Rohr, James Finley, Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Merton, and others, as well as the teachings of Jesus and the biblical authors. “My” thoughts are formed from my limited understanding of theirs, and that synthesis may not always be true to their insights nor helpful to you. I offer this as fodder for your own ruminations about life, dying, and death.

We have an eternal nature that was never born and will never die. That part of us is our soul. It is a unique expression of the spirit of God, which is the same spirit that “swept over the face of the waters”[1] at the dawn of creation. In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, the word translated as spirit is rauch, which also means air, breath, and wind. It is the entry of spirit into the material of the earth that causes creation to spring forth into what we know as life. In the creation story at the beginning of the Gospel of John, the resulting creation is referred to as the Logos, which is Greek for Word. This Word is the spirit in an earthly body, or embodiment. The image of God’s creating power as Word follows from the Genesis description of creation occurring at God’s verbal command: “And God said, let there be…” This Word can perhaps be better understood as a strong, creative, vibratory impulse – an energy field – more than simply spoken words as we understand them. Our human ears only hear sounds in a very limited vibrational frequency range, but waves of energy exist along an infinite scale above and below our auditory limits. They arrange and rearrange matter in ways that we often consider destructive. Think, for example, of earthquakes, tsunamis, tidal waves, and storm fronts. These are powerful waves pulsing across the earth, often recreating whatever existed before it. A small-scale example of this is often the theme of science fair projects where a student shows how different sound waves arrange grains of sand on a hard surface into different patterns. Those patterns are consistent with and unique to the frequency of the energy, rearranging the sand as the wave frequency changes.

The point is that a part of God’s animating spirit – our soul – embodies itself in earthly garb in order to become the life we know as us. This is how we begin. Like Jesus, we are a perfect and unique blend of spirit and matter. Our physical body is animated by our ethereal soul. Unlike Jesus, however, we become so consumed in the physical nature of our being that we neglect, ignore, and even deny our spiritual nature. There is a story I’ve read in various forms where an older sibling, perhaps three or four years old, asks his younger sibling to tell him about God because he is starting to forget. By the time we begin school, by the time our intellectual functions of reason and logic begin to develop, we lose connection with the spirit and spiritual life which first animated our existence. Our ego takes root and focuses our conscious attention on the material aspects of our lives, or that which makes us comfortable, rich, famous, or otherwise desirable to others. Of course, none of what makes us comfortable, rich, famous, and desirable is inherently bad, but it is all a part of the earth and will die with our body.

This, then creates much of our fear of death – that we will lose our stuff, as well as everything we identified with during our earthly existence. The seduction of the temporal things of the earth leads us to overly identify with what will necessarily be annihilated at our physical death. Like the folks at the funeral of a rich man wondering how much of his fortune he left behind – he left all of it. When we forget about our eternal, spiritual nature, we fear there will be nothing left of us when we die. In actuality, our true self will remain, as it always has. As we learn to identify more with our eternal, spiritual nature, our dread of physical death lessens.

This is the 2nd in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

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[1] Genesis 1:2

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If I Should Die Before I Wake

 Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep;

If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

 –Bedtime prayer for children

This week I begin a new series of Life Notes titled If I Should Die Before I Wake. In the coming months I will reflect upon topics related to death and dying. I intend to explore the various types of deaths we go through and witness during our lives on earth, as well as delving into speculations about heaven and hell, resurrection, an afterlife, and other related topics. I enter this discussion not as an expert, but as one intimately impacted by these issues and curious enough to explore them in some detail. As always, I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback. You can communicate with me directly via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or you can comment through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

The thought of death makes most of us squirm. We sometimes fear if we talk too much about it, we may invite it to come closer. We know that everyone and everything dies, and in many ways we have been in a process of dying since taking our first breath on earth. We joke that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. One of my mentors, Jim Finley, likes to say that our death is “in the mail,” meaning it is on its way. Even when death is likely decades away, each passing day draws it closer. Death is frightening because of its uncertainty and unknowability. We do not know when it will arrive, in what manner, under what circumstances, or what lies beyond. It hangs like a dismal shroud over everything good, beautiful, and joyful in our lives.

Spiritual teacher Robert Brumet posted a blog in May 2019 titled, Using Death as Your Advisor.[1] He quotes the Yaqui Indian sorcerer, Don Juan, in saying, “Death is our eternal companion. It is always at our left at arm’s length. It has always been watching you. It always will until the day it taps you.” Brumet advises, “The thing to do when you are impatient is to turn to your left and ask advice from your death. An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if you catch a glimpse of it.” He encourages us to assess our priorities in view of our impending demise. If this were my last week on earth, which of my typical worries and stressors would still matter? What activities are worthy of trading for any of my precious moments? It is in this spirit of using our death as an advisor for living that I hope this series of reflections will remain true. I do not wish to be morbid or fatalistic, but I do believe there is much to be learned from the discussion.

I have witnessed physical death in a close and personal way three time in my life, thus far. I was at my father’s side for his sudden death, and I was able to spend extended time with my mother and grandmother as they went through a slower dying process. I am forever grateful for the few hours spent with my dad the night before he died. Neither of us knew, at least not consciously, how life was about to change. I am equally grateful for the days and weeks spent with my mother and grandmother during their gradual transition toward whatever comes next. My grandmother shared a number of experiences she was having of the next world whenever she drifted back to conscious presence with me. Truly, time spent with the dying is a blessed gift when we are present enough to receive it. We must, however, go deeper into the experience than our sadness at losing physical contact with one we love typically allows. Of course, this is easier said than done.

Brumet offers sage advice about death and dying: “Remembering that the span of my life is limited makes my remaining days all the more precious.” My hope is that these reflections will encourage us to reorder our priorities for our remaining days, treating each as a priceless gift. If that occurs, these reflections will be less about death and more about living life to its fullest. May it be so.

This is the 1st in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

[1] Robert Brumet, Using Death as Your Advisor. May 2, 2019, http://www.RobertBrumet.com

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Praying With One Eye Open (Reprise)

 Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with Thanksgiving. At the same time pray for us as well… Colossians 4:2-3a

Throughout this series of Life Notes I have presented the metaphor of praying with one eye open in a negative light. I have used it as an illustration of how we hold back from surrendering completely to God. There is another way of looking at this, however, in which praying with one eye open might actually be the most appropriate way to pray. First, I’ll take a slight, but hopefully interesting detour.

Most people are aware that our brains have two hemispheres. It is one of the countless and unfathomable aspects of how we were created. In very broad terms, the left hemisphere specializes in small details and differentiates what it experiences into concrete groupings of right or wrong, dark or light, male or female. The left hemisphere, useful and necessary as it is, cannot see the big picture. The right hemisphere specializes in the big picture and attempts to fit its experiences into a larger whole. It seeks similarities and relationships, not differences. Here is an example of the typical functioning of the two hemispheres of the brain, paraphrased from Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary[1]:

A small bird in search of food must perform two tasks simultaneously. First, the bird must focus narrowly on the ground to identify what is edible from what is inedible, i.e., a grain of wheat from a pebble. This is detail work that is the domain of the left hemisphere, which controls the right eye. So our bird is scanning the ground with its right eye in search of food. At the same time, our little friend must also scan the environment for predators. This bigger picture focus is the domain of the right hemisphere, so the bird is also checking her/his surroundings with the left eye. For its well-being, our bird must be aware of both its internal needs and its external dangers. The divided brain allows it to do so.

I use this example to illustrate the dual nature of our earthly lives. Although we are one being, we have both a spiritual and physical aspect to that being. In a related way, we have an internal life as well as the life going on around us. Our divided brains show how we were created with the ability to comprehend and experience in both detailed and broad ways, in concrete and ethereal realms, and in our inner and outer lives. As we awaken to the amazing manner in which we were created, we become capable of unifying and reconciling what we witness in the world around us with the life we experience within.

In prayer, there is a need to focus on the details of our personal situation and a simultaneous need to be aware of the needs of others around us. Like the hungry bird, we have need for both attention to our inner details and a view beyond our own little world. For prayer to be effective, we must attend to both our internal and external worlds.

When we understand that God created us with physical eyes and senses to perceive the world around us, but also with internal senses to explore our inner lives, then we begin to see the wisdom and practicality of praying with one eye open. In other words, we have been given the capacity to be attuned to our inner and outer worlds simultaneously. In order to close our physical eyes in prayer, we need not turn a blind eye to the suffering around us. Likewise, we need not ignore the struggles and conflicts within, pretending as if they do not exist. Our inner and outer worlds mirror one another and ignoring one simply intensifies the struggle in the other.

We were created as single beings with dual capabilities. We actually can attend to seemingly opposite realities until it becomes clear that they are two sides of the same thing. We can become unifiers of the seeming dualisms and contradictions of our world. We attain the peace of Christ when we embrace all of the diverse realities in this life as a single and good creation, valuable and worthy of our respect and love simply by being. In order to grow into this knowledge of our essential unity, we need to pray with one eye closed, i.e., focused internally, and one eye open, i.e., focused externally.

This is the 36th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary. Yale University Press, 2019.

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