THE ADVENTUROUS FOOTNOTE

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Sometimes when we read, we encounter a footnote in the text that opens up a world far beyond the text we are reading, an unexpected world, beyond the world of the text.

The footnote is an interruption in our reading.  We can follow its lead and be distracted for the moment from what we are reading or we can ignore it until a later time.  Whether we choose to read it by compulsion or by an idle curiosity, the footnote leads one to imagine another book that could have been written.

Just such an adventurous footnote appeared in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, an anthology of Chinese philosophical texts first published in 1963. The book presents excerpts from a variety of Chinese philosophers (with occasional editorial commentary) from Confucius, Mo Tzu, and Lao Tzu up to the philosophical turmoil brought on by Mao and his “Cultural Revolution” in Communist China. I bought the book first as a textbook for a course on Asian Religions and later used it when I taught courses on Asian religions at Temple University and at Rosemont College. Other than that, it has been shuffled around unceremoniously on my overflowing and cramped bookshelves for almost 30 years. It is a book that I pick up and scan through every four or five years, usually in one of those whimsical moments when I spot it on the shelf and it beckons me to reacquaint myself with it. I recently picked it up in a moment of curiosity. I can’t say why then and not some other time. All I can say is that there are times when a long-forgotten book can still exert an inexplicable pull on us and we simply have to pick it up and begin to read.

I began reading excerpts from Chang Tzu, a lesser-known Taoist philosopher, who came after Lao Tzu. Then I switched back to the text of the Tao Te Ching.  All of a sudden, the text was interrupted by an editorial comment noting that the symbolism of water in the text of Lao Tzu “is ethical rather than metaphysical.” The comment continued:

“It is interesting to note that while early Indians associated water with creation [Rig Veda 10:129], and the Greeks looked upon it as a natural phenomenon, ancient Chinese philosophers, whether Lao Tzu or Confucius [Analects 9:16], preferred to learn moral lessons from it.  Broadly speaking, these different approaches have characterized Indian, Western, and East Asian civilizations, respectively. “[1]

Moral lessons from water? My mind began to race. I understood what the author was saying about water in Taoist thought, but was this really the case with Western thought? It was such a sweeping generalization; yet my mind was captured by the image.  What do the biblical texts do with water?  I wondered.  Then I returned to the first question, what does it mean to learn moral lessons from the behavior of water? Here I was in another place, another world, imagining what a book that compared how water as an idea was employed in Indian, Western and East Asian civilizations might look like.  This was a book the author had not chosen to write, yet it was a book that at that moment I wanted to read.

At that moment, however, I was reading a book on Chinese philosophy, not an unwritten book still waiting to be composed somewhere stashed in my imagination; for that moment I needed to be content with the book that already had been written—the book that was in my hands.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu poetically describes the ideal life as one lived in harmony with the ways things are.  If we live in harmony with the Tao, or the “way,” all is balanced and whole. And so at last I began to consider how from water, moral lessons could be learned.

The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain. Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.

In thinking, keep to the simple.

In conflict, be fair and generous.

In governing, don’t try to control.

In work, do what you enjoy.

In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you. [2]

These are profound words. Who would have thought that in a moment my thoughts would be taken back to ancient Chinese thought and the moral lessons about humility, balance, and harmony that can be learned from water? There are convergences between ancient Chinese philosophy and what Jesus taught about humility, forgiveness, trust in God, and living the present.  But that would be another book, only imagined, but a book not yet written.

1. Wing-Tsit Chan (ed. & trans.), A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton University Press. 1963), 143. See also p. 36.

2. Tao Te Ching: A New English Version, with Foreword and Notes by Stephen Mitchell. (San Francisco, Harper Collins, 1988), 8.

TULIPS

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For a few short weeks in the spring, my favorite flower, the tulip, emerges from the earth.

To be honest, I don’t always take the time to stop and admire the flowers or even to “smell the roses.” I am not a gardener, though I have made sporadic attempts over the years to plant and maintain a vegetable patch in my backyard. There is something, however, about tulips that makes me take notice.  Perhaps it is sheer variety of tulips with their wide array of splendidly bright colors that makes them so appealing to me; or perhaps it is the shape and composition of the petals.  Maybe it is the fact that their shiny petals, at once so sturdy and so frail, are on splendid display for only three weeks a year and that makes their annual appearance so noteworthy.

Although tulip bulbs appear outwardly to be hearty, they do not always bloom as expected. In the warmer climate of the mid-Atlantic we usually have to plant new tulip bulbs in the fall to make sure that they bloom in the spring. This is due to the fact that the ground does not always get cold enough during the winter months to ensure a bloom in the spring.  When tulips don’t bloom, they send up a disappointing single leaf or two, a telltale sign that nothing more is to be expected.

In Northern climates, Easter coincides with the arrival of spring, the time when the newly blooming flowers and budding trees emerge from an earth that for so many months had seemed lifeless. Because of the juxtaposition of Easter and the arrival of spring, it is easy for us to see how Easter can function as a symbol of the hope of new life emerging from death, similar to the emerging of the new life from a once dormant tulip bulb.

Easter, however, is more than the seasonal renewal of nature. On Easter Day we celebrate a supernatural event, that God raised Jesus who had been crucified from the dead, giving the promise of new life to us and to all we love. When Jesus spoke of his death and resurrection in the gospel of John, he employed the metaphor of plant life. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). While this biological metaphor may be helpful to our understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it can easily lead us to a poorly developed theology concerning our Easter faith.

The resurrection of the crucified Jesus from the dead is more than a metaphor for new life born out of death or loss, or from the reemergence of a tulip from the earth. Easter is the story of a mighty act of God, both in and outside our human history. In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter proclaimed that “God raised this Jesus whom you crucified…from death, “having freed him from death because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (Acts 2: 24, 36).

When tulips reappear in the spring, I give thanks to God for the beauty of the created order. When I think about the resurrection of Jesus, however, I know that biological metaphors cannot capture the meaning and magnitude of the Easter event. The resurrection of Jesus, who had been crucified and had died, from the dead to new life, can in no way be understood as a recurrent act of nature. Jesus’ resurrection is nothing like a bulb that sends forth a flowering shoot each year.  The resurrection of Jesus we celebrate at Easter is, however, a singular act of God in the past that continues to give us hope in the present and in our future.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

SPIRITUALITY AND CHANGE

pexels-photo-414160.jpegEarly in the first century AD, St. Paul wrote the following words from prison urging Christians in a church he himself had founded to live lives dedicated to Jesus Christ:  “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4: 1-3).  A few verses later he urged his readers to “grow up”  in the Lord (Eph. 4:15) and to “put away your former way of life…to be renewed … and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4: 22-24). If one were to ask Paul what he thought true Christian spirituality was about,  he would not, I suspect, have given a definition of it. Rather, he would have offered the kind of practical advice offered above.  

What stands out most about the advice St. Paul offers is that spirituality involves change. Christians first are called to grow up. When we commit ourselves to a life of discipleship, of following Jesus, we are not fully formed or fully matured. That will take some time and commitment on our parts. We will have to renounce our old way of life and then we will have to embrace a new life of righteousness and holiness.  We have to cast off the old garments of sin and unrighteousness and clothe ourselves with a new self. These at first might sound like pious platitudes but Paul defines for his readers what he means by a life of righteousness and holiness. A life that is righteous and holy is marked by humility, gentleness, patience, and the ability to maintain relationships with others marked by unity and peace. For Paul true spirituality is not about the thoughts we might have about God or about the desires for things we wish God would fix or change. For Paul, our spirituality and devotion to God is reflected in how we ourselves interact with others. It is reflected in our humility, gentleness, patience, and peaceableness. 

Most of us like “change” as long as it conforms to our wishes and desires, but it is not so appealing when it comes to changing ourselves, that is our desires, behaviors, habits, and way of interacting with others.  That takes hard work, work for which we are not always ready to commit ourselves.   

Whenever church folks are surveyed concerning what they want from their church they invariably reply that they want to become more spiritual. I have no doubt that this is a genuine concern to them. I am also sure that some people are not sure what to say and so they figure that is the most reasonable response to give. In any case, I find that while folks say they want to become more spiritual, they find it difficult to actually embark on the journey that will lead them to that destination.  

If you, for example, want to become a more loving, patient, giving, or forgiving person, you will have to change the way you currently interact with other people and even the way you treat yourself—and that may not be easy.  To begin that process you will have to be willing to change.  Wanting to become more spiritual while at the same time trying to continue living as you already do is like attempting to go sailing in a boat without untying the boat from the dock.   At some point you will have to trust God enough to untie yourself from the dock and take a chance on the water.   

The Russian Orthodox writer Anthony Bloom tells the story of a Russian man, now revered as a saint, who wanting to live a more spiritual life, went into a church one day and asked God to help him become more patient. Perhaps he had a sense of his own flaws and knew where he needed to mature spiritually. As he left the church he ran into one of his brothers, with whom he had never even so much had had a sharp word.  Soon they were arguing furiously, almost coming to blows. The man, distressed, ran back to the church and asked God how it was that he had prayed for patience and almost immediately had fallen into such a violent argument. The Lord answered him to the effect that “you asked to become a more spiritual person. I was only giving you an opportunity to learn patience.” 

We learn to be more patient through our impatience; we learn to be more forgiving by actually having to forgive others who have hurt us; we learn to share with others by sharing what we have; we learn to pray by praying. Because each of us is a different person, we each have different challenges.

If you truly want to become more spiritual, that is, more gentle and humble in your dealing with others, you will have to make the effort to do so. No one can do it for you.  In his book Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom offers these words of wisdom:  

It is absolutely pointless to ask God for something which we ourselves are not prepared to do….When in our prayers we ask God for strength to do something in His Name, we are not asking him to do it instead of us because we are too feeble to be willing to do it for ourselves.

If you want to become more spiritual, you will have to be willing to change. You will have to be willing become a different person, a changed person. You will have to let go of the person you now are and embark on a journey that will lead to your becoming a new person in Christ. God will provide the opportunities for you to learn and grow in righteousness and holiness. God will help you and be with you at all times on your journey, but the journey cannot start without your own willingness to change and grow.  

THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD

pexels-photo-756883.jpeg“What’s my line?

I’m happy cleaning windows

Take my time…

“I’m a working man in my prime

 cleaning windows.”

Van Morrison, “Cleaning Windows”

I was walking on 15thSt. in downtown Philadelphia on my way to meet a fellow priest for lunch when I felt tiny drops of water fall on my head. Because it was not raining at the time, I looked up to see where the water was coming from. There perched on the side of a large downtown skyscraper was a window cleaner attached to the building by a lone safety wire. In his hands were a bucket and a “v.” Directly in front of me was a mother pointing upward to showing her son the window-washer hanging precariously from the side of the building.

The lyrics to “Cleaning Windows,”one of my favorite Van Morrison songs, immediately came to mind.  It’s a song Van Morrison wrote about his work from 1961-62 when he and his partner Sammy Woodburncleaned the windows of the terraced homes in Belfast. The song reveals the simple joy and contentment that Van Morrison found in the rather ordinary task of cleaning windows.

Oh, the smell of the bakery from across the street

Got in my nose

As we carried our ladders down the street

With the wrought-iron gate rows

Oh, Sam was up on top

And I was on the bottom with the v

We went for lemonade and Paris buns

At the shop and broke for tea

I have always found this song to be a profoundly spiritual song. It points to the realization that people in many times and places have had, namely that God is often experienced in the utmost simplicity of everyday life. Christians perhaps best know the kind of spirituality that finds God in the midst of everyday activities from the witness of Brother Lawrence.

Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, born Nicholas Herman in 1611 in French Lorraine, was a large and clumsy man who was always breaking or accidentally smashing things. He had served as a soldier until wounded and then as a footman.  His conversion at the age of eighteen happened as he noticed a leafless tree against the background of snow and thought of the wonder of God that would be made manifest in the spring when that tree again bloomed.  In 1666 he joined the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites of Paris as a lay-brother to atone for his own perceived inadequacies but instead found only the grace and mercy of God. He was put to work in the monastery kitchen where he worked for the next 25 years. He died in 1691 around the age of eighty.

The Practice of the Presence of God, first published in 1691, contained excerpts from conversations with him and from his letters. In the one of the conversations he remarked “that he was more united with God during ordinary activities than in religious exercises, in which he was generally afflicted with spiritual dryness.” He observed that “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer.”

In the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.

Where Van Morrison finds contentment in the everyday task of window cleaning, Brother Lawrence finds the presence of God in the midst of the noise and clatter of his kitchen.

Brother Lawrence’s “practice of the presence of God” was really quite simple: wherever he found himself, he reminded himself continually that God was always near to him. This practice meant that he never strayed far from the well of God’s merciful presence and explains how in the midst of a busy kitchen, he was able to find rest and refreshment in God’s presence.

IN THESE TIMES

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This blog will feature reflections and meditations on everyday life.

I have worked on an off as a parish priest for almost forty years. Over this time, I have written many meditations on what it means to live the Christian life. Many of these were written in harmony with the seasons of the Church calendar, particularly, with the calendar of the Episcopal Church.

The seasons of the church year are dominated by the mystery of the Incarnation — Christmas  — and that of the Resurrection, the Paschal mystery, otherwise known as Easter. Before each of these seasons are  respective seasons of preparation, Advent and Lent.  The other times of the year, flexible in duration, are Epiphany, stretching between Christmas and Lent, and the season of Pentecost, beginning with the Sunday fifty days after Easter and stretching to the beginning of Advent. In the Roman Catholic calendar, time in the Episcopal seasons of Epiphany and Pentecost is called “Ordinary time.”  The Roman Catholic Council of Bishops notes that, “Ordinary Time is a time for growth and maturation, a time in which the mystery of Christ is called to penetrate ever more deeply into history until all things are finally caught up in Christ.”

While ordinary time has a specific meaning in the church calendar, it is a wonderful term to refer to all of all of human life, in which we each are called to grow and mature in the mystery of Christ.

In the coming months, I will begin to share my reflections on living and flourishing in ordinary time.