A poem for all days

book-heartToday is my birthday. Since I’d like to make it to 100, I now have nearly as many birthdays left to celebrate as have been given to me. This may seem trite, but looking back it is clear that life is a series of lives, chapters, so to speak. And for these and their marked up, underlined and dog-eared pages, I am grateful.

I’ve mentioned before my admiration, actually, my love for the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He has been recognized as the most “lyrically intense” German poet, and while my knowledge of German poetry actually begins and ends with Rilke (perhaps I need to get out more), I have to agree. The editors of the book, A Year with Rilke (which everyone should have in their library, by the way), have chosen a perfect poem for today, and for all days:

Lyrical intensity, indeed.

Being Ephemeral

Does Time, as it passes, really destroy?
It may rip the fortress from its rock;
but can this heart, that belongs to God,
be torn from Him by circumstance?
Are we as fearfully fragile
as Fate would have us believe?
Can we ever be severed
from childhood’s deep promise?
Ah, the knowledge of impermanence
that haunts our days
is their very fragrance.
We in our striving think we should last forever,
but could we be used by the Divine
if we were not ephemeral?
—Sonnets to Orpheus II, 27

How can you, an otherwise normal and intelligent person, believe this stuff?

4th Sunday of Easter (B)

Last month on Facebook I happened upon a lively conversation between my friend—a respected environmental activist—and his friends, on the relevance of religion in today’s world.

In his original post my friend made a proclamation of faith stating he would persist in his practice of Catholicism—which he strongly identifies with values of charity and justice—and partake in the sacraments as is his right, despite what he called the antithetical “contempt for the lives of their fellow humans” exhibited by certain Catholic Cardinals (i.e. the largely dismissed, but widely quoted Burke). If I could have “liked” his post a thousand times I would have.

I did not know my friend was religious, or Catholic for that matter. But what followed was a series of challenges to his (and my) belief system, some of which may have been driven by curiosity or a sincere desire to understand, but my sense was that most of the challengers’ questions were based on the logical conclusion that “it doesn’t take a creed or cross to understand the difference between right and wrong” (quote paraphrased from the conversation). This statement is a sad reminder to me that for many, the beauty and vibrancy of faith and religion is lost, and the grandeur of God, on which the poet and Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins muses (you may read the poem at the end of this post), that surrounds and saturates every waking hour and all of creation has been hijacked by moralists and functionalists.

My friend responded with the utmost kindness, patience and clarity to his readers’ questions such as whether religious institutions teach anything that cannot be found in the writings of great philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hume. My friend provided personal experiences from his younger days and concluded that being educated in philosophy does not make one a moral being, impart a desire to care for others, increase empathy, or instill a love or reverence for other humans or creation.

Another reader opined that religion is the source of authoritarian power against poor, helpless masses. He challenged my friend to name one thing, other than religious doctrine, that a church can offer which cannot be found elsewhere. My friend pointed to the radical examples of faith from people like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Tom Berry and Paul Mayer, and questioned his friend’s premise that the presence of secular moral teachings that parallel those of Jesus indicate Christianity has run its course and is obsolete. He also noted that the actual cause of the world’s problems are money and power, both of which are capable of contaminating any institution including government, religion, education, media, and business. Of these, he said, “Christianity at least has values and beliefs around which one can build a life and community.”

Believers are frequently confronted with questions like these, which seem to ask “How can you, an otherwise normal and intelligent person, believe this stuff? It gets tiresome. But, in many cases, I think people really want to know what makes believers, believe. I have to admit, if I did not know God and was standing on the side of “I can be a good person without religion” I would have questions for my believing friends, too. It’s true.

But the purpose of religion is not to teach us how to live a “goal-filled life characterized by moral direction,” as one of my friend’s readers suggested. The purpose of religion is union with God; the act of religion is grounded in love of God, the creator, the higher power, or the “something greater” sensed by many people. Religion is God-centered, not self-improvement centered. Why do we do this? Because we want to know God, and when one has an experience of divine presence and abiding love (which by the way happens all the time if one is attentive), it’s pretty hard to understand how all people aren’t actively seeking the same.

At some point in life, maybe as a child, maybe as an adult, maybe at the point of death, believers come to see that regardless of our imperfections, God loves us with a radical love. And as author Cathleen Falsani writes in my new favorite book, “Disquiet Time,” “God loves me. Just as I am. (…) God fights for me. God pursues me. God never gives up on me. God never stops loving me.” (Grant and Falsani 2014)

The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. —1 John 3:1b

This personal knowledge of God’s deep abiding love does not arrive by stork or magic or by lightning. People of all faith traditions have devoted their entire lives to the quest of knowing God. Spiritual practice is work; that is why it is called a practice. It requires conscious awareness, detachment and a decision to forego functionalist thinking, to follow that nagging “what if?” and traverse the jagged, unknown regions of life.

When we walk the earth with wonder and revere the miracle and dignity of every man, woman and child, every living creature, our planet and the universe, we make room for God and our hearts fill to the brim. It is entirely possible to become aware of God’s grace, God’s full-out mercy, and God’s limitless generosity. Here’s how: Remain open. You are beloved. Accept it like a soaking rain. This is the most profound statement of faith anyone can make. And the fact that one can deny it does not make it any less true. Sure, it is possible to be a good person without religion. And, let’s be honest. It’s damn hard to be good all the time. But religious people believe there is more to life than being good.

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
—Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

Today’s readings can be found here.

_________

** Grant, Jennifer, and Cathleen Falsani, eds. 2014. Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels. Jericho Books. page 6.  You can find the book here

The Growing Season

branches against sky3rd Sunday of Easter (B)

It is April. Thank the Lord. But it has taken an inordinately long time to feel like it. I loathe winter. Well, that’s not entirely true; snow is pretty, particularly between Christmas and New Year’s Day. But in all seriousness, it is the darkness that accompanies winter that is so depressing to me. I need sunlight.

With each lost second of daylight in the fall months I move a little slower and my world becomes a little bit bluer. And with the end of daylight savings time, I want to put my jammies on at 5pm. Plants exhibit a phenomenon in their daily cycles, called circadian rhythms; my circadian rhythm tells me that when it is dark it is time to shut it down and go to bed. I know I’m not alone in this.

Of course, what I and so many others experience in the winter has a name: Seasonal Affective Disorder, but for me, it is so much more than SAD. It is a period of neutrality and dormancy that yawns on for months. Yes, winter is a long, dark and colorless season. Trunks and limbs stand gray and forlorn against a slate sky; formerly exuberant prairie grasses, shorn of all but a few desperate stragglers, flop against ice tipped mulch; rhododendrons and azaleas, the glory of the summer garden, dehydrated and emaciated, shield their nakedness with curled leaves. For native plants, this is a protective state; if they did not go dormant in the winter, they would die. I am not a plant, but if I were, I wouldn’t make it. I’d be toast. prairie in winter

Clearly, complaining about the weather is a first world problem, and it is tiresome. Seasonal affective disorder, however, has the power to sap one’s energy, undermine creativity, and on some days, affect the ability to move forward. Like those suffering a great disappointment and perceived loss of purpose, I need reminding that this season will pass. I know it will, but I pace. Oh, my God, how much longer?

After Jesus’ crucifixion, his disciples (those who had not deserted and run away) went into hiding. They were in darkness both literally and emotionally. They were deeply troubled and experienced doubts about the past and the future. Luke tells us the disciples had heard the claims of Jesus’ resurrection from the women who visited the tomb “but their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.” [Luke 24:11]. Peter took it upon himself to run and see that Jesus’ tomb was empty. The text does not say if Peter shared what he saw with the others, but later that day two of the deserters returned to the group and spoke of their own amazing experience of seeing the risen Lord, and “while they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” [Luke 18:36].

The disciples became aware that Jesus was with them and they experienced his peace. I like to imagine that at this moment a beam of warm, life-giving sunlight flooded the room and forced the windows to fly open. Suddenly the disciples heard Jesus reminding them of what he had said about the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets. Jesus was alive! They understood that from that day forward the proclamation and witness of all that Jesus had said and done would begin with them, starting in Jerusalem. With great clarity, each understood what Jesus commanded of them. They knew their mission. If not for this, the story might have stopped here. But it did not end. It never ends.

omg, tulips And then, like the end a long and difficult labor, the earth stirs, it thaws and heaves, and the dawn arrives bearing gifts of loamy, fragrant soil, of snow drops and crocuses, of the excited chatter of birds, and earthworms on the sidewalk, and it recalls an interior life once known and seen that now brightens limbs and bark and causes buds to swell and open. Every spring the miracle of its return, and the confidence with which trees and plants, birds and animals take up their duties stuns me. They just know what to do. I do too.

Stop now, and read Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book

disquiet time coverStop everything. I have to make a public service announcement on my new favorite book, Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels (Grant and Falsani 2014). Just this moment, I had to force myself to put the book down so I could share it with you.

I have to say, from the first page I felt as if I entered a great room of my people (or at least people who I would like to know so I can say they are my people) Hi! Hello everyone, it’s me, Susan!

For many years I have been a Cathleen Falsani fan, so my enthusiasm for this book, of which she is both co-editor and contributor, is no real surprise. She and equally awesome co-editor Jennifer Grant, have gathered 46 stories penned by some incredibly smart people who wrestle with the big questions for a living, Among these contributors are award-winning authors, theologians, pastors and preachers, a radio host, a songwriter, a cookbook author, a bio ethicist, an entrepreneur, a former addict, an activist, a screen writer and actor, a political adviser, a math teacher, and a lawyer, just to name a few of the “nonconformists and oddballs” of the churchy-not-so-churchy-oh-yes-I-am world that we call home.

I am no shrinking violet when it comes to wrestling with the spiritual life. Faith blooms as a result of the questioning, the doubting, and the dawning that comes when we finally realize our error is trying to shoehorn God stuff into human stuff. Although many of the reflections in this book take their inspiration from scripture and related themes of Christianity, it is for everyone: believer, fence sitter, skeptics and naysayers alike. It’s refreshing and real, provocative, touching, and at times a little shocking. But as Jennifer and Cathleen point out in the introduction, God can take it. And so can you.

Try it. You’ll like it.

God Speaks, Easter People

Easter

I am, you anxious one.

Don’t you sense me, ready to break
into being at your touch?
My murmurings surround you like shadowy wings,
Can’t you see me standing before you
cloaked in silence?
Hasn’t my longing ripened in you
from the beginning
as fruit ripens on a branch?

I am the dream you are dreaming.
When you want to awaken, I am waiting.
I grow strong in the beauty you behold.
And with the silence of stars I enfold
your cities made by time.

—God Speaks. Ranier Maria Rilke, From The Book of Hours I, 19

Not only His longing, but ours. We are faced with one choice: to be an Easter people and step into the light, or to roll the stone back to its place and extinguish hope.

I will choose the light. Happy Easter, people!