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Living Beyond Words

 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

It is common to have a narrative running nonstop in our heads. Most of us are more present to the descriptions of our experiences than we are to the actual experiences, and we do not even notice ourselves doing it. The problem is obvious – our descriptions are one step removed from reality. Language is one of the first things we are taught as we grow, and by the time we reach adulthood we have fallen hook, line, and sinker for the detached reality our words describe. We forget that words are metaphors. They point to or describe something, but they are not the thing itself. For example, the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm speak of lying down in green pastures and resting beside still waters. Comforting words, yes, but they are only mental representations of the experiences they describe. God meets us in our experiences, not in our descriptions.

In the book of Exodus, as Moses and God conversed on Mount Sinai, Moses told God the Israelites would want to know God’s name. God answered, “I am who I am.”[1] The people wanted a description of God, a box within which they could place God, some way of limiting God’s nature to something tangible and controllable. Many sacred writings throughout the ages have affirmed that God cannot be known; only experienced. The same is true of our lives on earth – they cannot be lived by description. A contemplative life, in particular, seeks the experience that inspires the description – the life beyond words.

God experiences life in and through us. In other words, God experiences you through me and me through you, which is not to say any of us are God. The true self within –the best, purest, and most holy self we know we can be – is where God resides. It is the part of us that was never born and will never die. It is the part that will live on when our earthly body gives out. This true self is not, however, cause for feelings of superiority because what is true of you and me is true of everyone else, too.

Our words, however, tell us we are not equal and that we are separate beings. Our life descriptions, supported by our egos, tell us we are better than this person, although maybe not as good as another. Descriptions necessarily compare, divide, and define this and that. We assess things not by their similarities but by their differences. By the time we become adults we are so convinced we are independent beings, separate from everyone else that ignoring our neighbors, leaving family members to work out their own problems, and not flinching at the genocide occurring across the globe become the accepted norm. Because we do not see our interconnectedness, and because the words that describe our lives are inadequate to capture any semblance that we are truly one body, we lose the lived experience and responsibility of oneness – one with God and one with each other.

Our words separate all kinds of things that are actually of the same essence, and we are deceived when we believe them. For example, we define light and dark, day and night, north and south in relation to each other, by what we consider their opposite. In fact, they are different states of the same reality. The same is true for Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, we are all one in Christ. Our oneness is NOT metaphorical, even if the words we use are. Even good and evil, in the larger picture, are parts of the same process of growth and evolution. No process of growth occurs without suffering, which often feels like evil when taken out of its larger context.

We are not our descriptions of ourselves; our true essence resides where our experiences meet the part of us that is one with God. Of these experiences, Jim Finley writes, “What is so extraordinary about such moments is that nothing beyond the ordinary is present. It is just the primal stuff of life that has unexpectedly broken through the mesh of opinions and concerns that all too often hold us in their spell. It is just life in the immediacy of the present moment before thought begins.”[2] Once we find that place, even for a moment, we know our true life, indescribably rich, resides beyond words.

This is the 14th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Exodus 3:14.

[2] James Finley, The Contemplative Heart. Sorin Books, 2000, pp.  24-25

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Finding Solitude

 For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. Psalm 52:1,5

To be in solitude is to be alone – really alone. Solitude may happen by a personal choice, or it may be forced upon us. Either way, we find ourselves alone. Aloneness can have a couple of different manifestations, too. We can be alone because there are no other persons around. We can also be alone because we do not speak the same language as or have little in common with those around us.

For most of us, being in extended solitude is an uncomfortable experience because it is unfamiliar. We are used to being around other people – spouses, family, roommates, co-workers, neighbors, or fellow students. It could be the noise of a television, music, feet shuffling across the floor, or a muffled conversation from the other side of a wall, but we get used to the constant din of having others nearby. The downside of being around others, although it mostly floats beneath our conscious awareness, is that we often judge ourselves when others are near – am I dressed appropriately? Am I contributing appropriately to the conversation? Is my music too loud? Do others find me as dull as I sometimes find myself? Our internal dialogue measures our current state of being against some imagined expectation of others. There is tremendous pressure in being around others, most of it extremely self-critical, making it nearly impossible to relax and just be. When was the last time we felt secluded enough to dance naked without fear of anyone seeing or judging us for it? Maybe not since I was one have I felt that uninhibited and free.

Being in solitude means being free of forced distractions. For example, some of the clatter around us is too loud or too engaging to ignore. In solitude, however, our only distractions are self-created. Our minds may still wander to the flippant remark we unthinkingly made last week, but by an act of will we can bring ourselves back into the moment. Solitude provides a perfect setting for entering the moment, wherever we happen to be. The reason many of us feel so far from God is that we live in a perennial state of out-of-the-momentness. In other words, we have our attention focused in the past, future, or otherwise away from where we are right now. God, however, is only accessible in the present. Jesus told us many times and in many ways that the kingdom of God/heaven is near.[1] We cannot enter it when we are outside of the moment.

Being mindful of our moments is not easy. We, particularly in the West, have too many distractions and too many earthly obligations. Making the time and finding a place to sit in solitude, being silent and still, is hard. The first and most important requirement is to get our attention out of our heads – to stop thinking, judging, assessing, planning, and regretting. Most of our regular mental activity focuses our awareness to the past or future and draws us out of the moment. When we are in the moment, we experience the information coming through our senses in real time. The saying, Stop and smell the roses, is an invitation into the present. Just pausing for a quick whiff before going about our business, however, accomplishes little – that is another form of praying with one eye open. We need to engage our noses, yes, but we also need to gaze intently at the detail in the petals, leaves, and stems. See how they reach to the sun, and listen for the breeze singing within them. With a finger, trace the veins of the petals and leaves. By appreciating and acknowledging its unique features, we get to know this being called Rose. This is a moment with another of God’s amazing creations, and we share it without judgement, without condemnation, and without assessing the need to trim the rose.

Whether we chose it or not, solitude provides an opportunity to experience the moment with God, whenever and wherever that moment occurs. It allows God to experience God’s creation through us while allowing us to connect with God in us.

Clearing[2] (Martha Postlewaite)

Do not try to save

the whole world

or do anything grandiose.

Instead, create

a clearing

in the dense forest

of your life

and wait there patiently,

until the song

that is your life

falls into your own cupped hands

and you recognize and greet it.

Only then will you know

how to give yourself

to this world

so worthy of rescue.

 

This is the 9th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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

[1] Matthew 3:2, 4:17, 10:7; Mark 1:5; Luke 10:9, 10:11, 21:31.

[2]https://wildandpreciouslife0.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/clearing-by-by-martha-postlewaite/

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The Contemplative Symbolism of the Cross

 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

To Christians, the cross symbolizes the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is a sign of pain and suffering, yes, but it is also a sign of hope. God, in the person of Jesus, endured a horrific persecution, humiliation, and death on a cross. Because God has been there, God understands and empathizes with our persecutions, humiliations, and suffering. There are countless innocent victims of human and natural violence, and the cross reminds us that God knows the futility of senseless suffering better than anyone does. Many believe Jesus died as payment for our sins, ending the bloody sacrificial system of atonement that had been in place for countless generations. All of this and more comes to mind when reflecting on the cross.

The cross is also a contemplative mandala for a mindful life. The horizontal line represents the time continuum of our physical existence on earth, stretching from past to present to future. Every point along that time-line is a moment, and we can chose to go deep into any moment. Doing so brings a vertical line into our awareness, symbolizing our spiritual life. The vertical line stretches endlessly above and below our earth-time awareness, opening access to another dimension of experience. The spiritual dimension exists outside of time, so whenever we decide to become present to a moment, time loses its sequential nature and becomes largely irrelevant. We may choose to go deeply into the moment of smelling a rose, closing our eyes and entering the sweet fragrance. It may transport us back to a time in childhood when our father gave our mother a bouquet of flowers for Mother’s Day. We may remember a walk through a rose garden, holding hands with the one we loved. We may enter  springtime, with the soft green grass and the rebirth and flowering of God’s creation. All of these possibilities exist within that single moment of smelling the rose, but they exist outside of the time continuum in which we bring the petals to our nose. Here is another example: When reading a passage that moves me, I can continue reading, or I can enter into that which moves me. I can become a character in the story and place myself in the scene. Being present to a moment is experiencing the moment on a level deeper than simply reading about it. It is taking an experiential detour along the vertical dimension of the cross as opposed to floating along the horizontal in surface-consciousness. We cannot enter the moment without committing our awareness to it, whatever it may be.

Lest I paint an inaccurately restricted image, entering the moment is not about lamenting the past, projecting the future, or losing ourselves in daydreams. Rather, it is about entering a deeper dimension of our life experience and understanding that we are always at the crossroads of infinite possibilities, symbolized by the cross. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, he was held at the intersection of the material and spiritual worlds. When he invites us to take up our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34), Jesus invites us to meet him at that intersection. When he says he goes to prepare a place for us (John 14:3), the doorway into that place is at this intersection. It leads to heaven on earth, or as Jesus calls it, the Kingdom of God.

The cross not only symbolizes a passage into a deeper experience of the moments of our lives, but it also illustrates how to get past the trying times of our lives. When Jesus was on the cross, he was held at the intersection of body and spirit by the nails. Just as he did not seek to be removed from his anguish, so we cannot ignore or seek shortcuts around our suffering – it will only return to us in new form. We must go through our suffering as if nailed to it, symbolized by Jesus’ crucifixion, in order for transformation to occur, symbolized by Jesus’ resurrection.

This, then, is one reading of the contemplative symbolism of the cross. All of our opportunities for growth and transformation exist in the moment. When we make ourselves vulnerable enough to fully enter a moment, new possibilities arise and unimaginable depths of experience open to us. Contemplative practices help us to enter and experience the intersection of matter and spirit in a way that opens us to the presence of God.

This is the 9th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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

 

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