Today’s News Is Better Than You Think

Photo by Monik Markus

Photo by Monik Markus

Today’s news stories included poppy farmers in Afghanistan, human rights abuses in war-torn Syria, torture, Ebola, and poverty in the US. Obviously the world is going to hell, not in a handbasket, but on a jet plane. For anyone else who’s got the news cycle blues, consider this alternative, rosier broadcast:

Woman Bakes Cookies, Gives Them to Neighbor

In Milwaukee, today, Mrs. Anderson baked a tray of chocolate peppermint cookies and delivered them to her neighbor, reportedly a working mom with two kids. We have her on the line now. Mrs. Anderson, how did today’s events make you feel? And is it true, as our sources say, that you topped these cookies with chocolate sprinkles?….

Man Goes to Grocery Store, Drives Home Safely

Breaking news from Charlottesville, NC: We interrupt our broadcast to bring you this report live. Mr. Jones has just arrived home after his trip to the grocery store. Can you describe your drive home for us, Mr. Jones? “Well, yes Ma’am. I drove home in good time. My engine and brakes worked perfectly the whole way. The factory did a fine job making all the car parts. I felt perfectly safe the whole time. Also, many of the other drivers remembered their turn signals, and one lady let me over when I needed to get into the turn lane.” Now tell us about the grocery store, Mr. Jones. “Sure. Well, there was plenty of food available. No sign of famine, war rationing, or bread lines in Charlottesville this week, although I am a bit concerned that the price of orange juice went up.”  

Child Has Fun at Playground

In other news, a parent reported that her daughter played in the sandbox today at their local playground. Other children were also there and multiple sources confirmed that no children had any symptoms of polio, measles, small pox, the black plague, or even the flu. However, one observer witnessed a tantrum when a four-year-old was told to put on his shoes.

Kitten Does Cute Things

And in today’s most unusual story, a kitten named Snowball was captured on film doing cute things. His family posted a video on Youtube of him climbing into a paper grocery bag, chasing a laser pointer, and watching the birdfeeder through the window. “I feel so lucky to have Snowball in my life,” one family member commented.

Maybe the world is better than you think. The dismal state of the news actually proves that we live in a pretty great reality. If things were really so bad in the world, we’d take bad for granted and only report the good stuff as noteworthy.

Anyone who is paying attention knows about the disturbing violence in our world today. The executions of children by Isis, police brutality against racial minorities in the US, rape on college campuses, the list goes on. But I would point out that these items are in the news precisely because we find them outrageous, egregious problems. In that, there is hope for us all. I am grateful to live in a place that bans cruel and unusual punishment, and that extends equal legal rights to women and minorities (at least in theory, despite all the abuses in actual practice). We should not have any illusions that a utopia is approaching or even achievable, but as a society we continue to struggle for what is right. And when the bad news gets overwhelming, remember all the good news that we simply take for granted.

Posted in Commentary, Humor | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Living and Making Peace with a World of Profound Change

“Yosemite’s Night Sky” by Steve Lyon

The problem of impermanence is one of the most ancient and universal dilemmas of human existence. It goes way beyond the simple fact that people die, that over time things decay and break. Change is woven into the fabric of reality at every level. What are different ways that people in history have made their peace with living in a mutable world?

The North Star has had a profound influence on human history. Time lapse photography shows how this one star holds its position in the night sky while all the other stars slowly seem to rotate around it. This single fixed point of light made early navigation possible. It illustrates one common response to change: the human desire to find something dependable in a mutable world.

On the grandest scales, we see that the universe is in constant flux; stars are born and die. For that matter, even black holes, once thought to be permanent, slowly evaporate. On the smallest scales, too, atoms decay (this is what allows carbon-dating, for example), and recent experiments have shown that even in the supposed stability of empty space, there is a boiling “foam” of subatomic particles that are constantly popping in and out existence.

The lives of stars and impossibly tiny particles may have been inaccessible to the ancients, but they observed these very same properties on the human scale. From gradual changes like the rise and fall of civilizations and the cycle of life and death in nature, to very rapid changes like the constant fluctuation of clouds, the fluttering of leaves in the breeze, the flickering of shadows from firelight, and even our own endless need to inhale and exhale or the restlessness of the human mind. Change and movement are inherent to our reality.

But why is change problematic? The constant motion of the waves is what draws us to play at the beach. Music is our human way of playing with patterns of changing tones. Life with no change would be too static, too boring for us. As with most things, we crave a balance. But ancient philosophers in many parts of the world viewed impermanence as a profound problem. Why?

Here is a humorous little poem I memorized as a small child:
“As a rule, man is a fool.
When it’s hot, he wants it cool.
When it’s cool, he wants it hot.
Always wanting what is not.”
(By anonymous, from the collection Knock at a Star)

Part of human nature is that we are rarely satisfied, even when we get what we want. The pleasure never lasts. In this infinitely mutable world, either the circumstances that please us change, or our own desires change. Every person from ancient to modern has had to grapple with this dilemma at some point in their lives.

As a mom with small children, I deal with it daily. For a young child, the anticipation of a new toy looms tremendous. It can consume his every thought. But predictably, the moment we finally arrive in the toy store, there are tears of abysmal disappointment. The toy, the toy that he begged and pleaded for, the toy that seemed a matter of life and death, the toy that has dreamed about and longed for all these weeks or months, is not enough. Suddenly we need ten other toys, too. My hopes of pleasing my child with a special treat come crashing down– they are another victim to the problem of impermanence. Because our desires are so changeable, so nearly infinite, the promised joy only lasted a vanishing instant.

Change is a human problem because it means that the things we love, whether people or objects, are all tenuous, all subject to change or loss. We cannot hold them, only enjoy them for the moment they are with us. This, also, is particularly true of children. If I had a dime for every time another parent reminded me that they grow up too fast!

Much of philosophy and religion is devoted to dealing with the issue of impermanence. One approach (Stoics, Existentialists, Buddhists, and others) has been to encourage followers to accept the mutable nature of reality and to regulate their desires accordingly. Another approach (Pythagoreans, Platonists, Christians, and others) has been to seek outside the visible world for something (whether mathematics, idealized constructs of the Good, Love, Beauty, etc., or God) that is unchanging and permanent. I don’t want to present these two solutions as mutually exclusive, though. I think Pythagoreans, Platonists, and Christians would equally endorse the need to regulate desires and learn self-control, and for Buddhists, the hope of escaping into Nirvana may also represent the wish to find something permanent.

Does the existence of a North Star point to a deeper reality of something fixed and unchanging, or is it a mere accident of earth’s particular location in space? In your own life, how have you made peace with the problem of impermanence?

Posted in Philosophy | 2 Comments

The Madness of Love: Spiritual Parables Where You Least Expect Them

Broadway: lights, peppy music, dancing, and… metaphysics? I was probably the last holdout of my generation never to have watched Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera– until yesterday. And I was surprised by what I found: not just ethereal singing with an interesting story, but a spiritual parable, a tale about the ego and the heart.

(Spoiler Alert!) Skipping right to the climax, we find the heroine Christine facing a terrible dilemma. The Phantom has given her an ultimatum: if she does not agree to spend her life with him, a man who has shown himself capable of violence and cruelty, the Phantom will murder her fiancé, the Count. The Phantom is a complex character: as a boy, he was put in a circus cage, abused, and labeled the “devil’s child” because of his disfigured face. Later, he escaped to hide in the sewers below the opera house, and in time, his genius became apparent. The Phantom composed operas and taught Christine to sing (from behind a screen). He fell in love with her, but his jealousy led him to kill, to burn down the opera house, and then to abduct Christine. But she diffuses the entire situation and avoids certain catastrophe by doing something unexpected: Christine feels pity for the Phantom. She tells him of her compassion and gives him a kiss. Suddenly, the Phantom reveals his better self, stepping aside and setting both her and the Count free.

The Phantom is a wonderful representation of the human Ego. It is like a wounded little child that causes all sorts of mischief. It craves honor and recognition; it continually compares itself to its rivals, turning jealous and possessive through its insatiable need for validation. If unchecked, it alternately begs and threatens the ones it would claim to love. The ego has the potential to strangle all love from grasping too tightly. But Christine– the Heart– reveals the way out. Through pity, the ego is able to step aside. Love is only possible when the ego, like the Phantom, lets go and sets the heart free to love unfettered.

In previous articles, I have written about St. John of the Cross and the crushing of the ego that goes along with the “dark night of the soul.” The goal of the spiritual life, the core of the gospels, is the cultivation of love: total and absolute love for God that is lived out in love for neighbors, strangers, even for enemies. But while the ego remains in power, worrying about its own honor, we can muster only a poor, half-hearted sort of love. At some point in our lives, by whatever means, we all must find a way to break the grip that the ego keeps on the heart. Only then are we free to love fully and truly. The nature of love is wholly free, unbounded, unconditional, heedless in its total self-giving. There is a kind of madness in genuine love.

God’s love, perfect love, is like this example taken from a children’s book on eagles: “The courtship flights and displays of African Fish Eagles are spectacular. Often the birds soar and grasp each other’s claws in midflight; then they tumble towards the earth, talons locked together in a grip which is released only moments before a seemingly unavoidable collision with the ground.” (Riley, Terry. “Eagles and Other Hunters of the Sky.” Dean & Son Ltd., 1982, p.8) Divine love is like that magnificent eagle which has been taken so far out of himself that he can hurtle right to the ground in total freefall. The radical love that God calls us to is like the madness of the merchant in the gospel parable who sells everything he has in order to obtain the one magnificent pearl. (Matt 13:45-46) Divine love is the insanity of the Divine Son of God giving up his very life.

The ego’s role is meant to be passive: by denying itself and moving aside, it unbinds the heart, setting it free to love as it will. Hebrews 12:29 describes God as a consuming fire. Like fire, the nature of love, and the nature of God-as-Love, is to spread and consume us utterly, as in the quote from the Desert Father Abba Joseph, who said, “If you will, you can become all flame.” But ego interferes in same the way that a rainstorm checks a forest fire.

In his classic work The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus (6th cent.) describes the goal of the spiritual struggle, the final rung of the spiritual ladder, as love. The first twenty-nine rungs are about overcoming the ego: defeating vices and cultivating virtues, all in order to make possible the ultimate and thirtieth rung which is love, the mad, all-consuming, and unbounded love for God: “He who truly loves ever keeps in his imagination the face of his beloved, and there embraces it tenderly. Such a man can get no relief from his strong desire even in sleep, even then he holds converse with his loved one. So it is with our bodily nature; and so it is in spirit. One who was wounded with love said of himself (I wonder at it): I sleep because nature requires this, but my heart is awake in the abundance of my love.”

Posted in Divine Love/ Christianity | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Dear Anonymous, You Are Not My Enemy

istockphoto: Angry-at-computer-630x420

Dear Anonymous,

You are not my enemy. You support beliefs that I disagree with. I abhor them, in fact, because I see the great harm that comes from them. You think the same thing about my ideas. Our ways of life are different in important ways. You and I are part of groups that are at odds. But you are not my enemy.

You may be anonymous to me now, but you are a human being. You have a name, if I care to learn it. You have a family. You have a story. You have suffered in significant ways, as have I, as have we all. You came by your beliefs honestly, just as I came by mine honestly.

We can argue with each other all we like, but let us not despise each other! We hate each other only because we fear. We fear much! All the nameless evils that threaten to harm us and the ones that we love. But you are not that evil. You have a name, even if I do not know it. I am not that evil either. In fact, because we are both human, have both known pain and loss and joy, we are family. We are brother and sister. We are neighbors.

“The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”– G K Chesterton

I cannot hate you or love you, cannot forgive or be forgiven, until I remember this about you, that you have a name. And here is mine:

Your sister,

Posted in Commentary, Divine Love/ Christianity | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

What Is the Shape of the Soul?


When I was little, I mistakenly thought that a picture of a smoker’s lungs from my first grade textbook was showing a picture of the soul. To this day, when I hear the word soul, my first mental image is of a purple lung-shaped thing. But of course the soul is invisible. We use this term to talk about a reality of the human person and identity which does not have a specific location in the same way that a body organ does.

I have been reflecting on St. John of the Cross’s description of the Dark Night of the Soul, and on the feeling of spiritual emptiness that often accompanies it. What follows is simply my own thoughts. I am drawing on Christian sources, but my conclusions are not authoritative in any way. I am merely putting them up for discussion.

When a person passes through the “Dark Night,” they shed everything that is false: all idols of themselves and of God, all sense of themselves that is based on the ego. It is an intense process, and leaves the soul feeling vulnerable, naked, empty.

It reminds me of what my allergist told me when I first began treatment years ago: his patients usually complained that when their sinuses were finally clear for the first time, the air actually burned. It can be an intensely uncomfortable sensation to breathe freely when you are not used to it! Some of them even stopped taking their medicine when that happened.

So when all that is false in the soul is gone, what is left? How can the soul still commune with God when it is seemingly reduced to nothing, stripped bare of all the (false) ornamentation that it had identified as its own? If the ego, so grand and expansive, is stripped away and discarded, what does the soul look like underneath? Is it tiny like a nut? Is it empty like a cup that has been poured out? At the Last Supper, Christ uses the image of a cup to describe His life and offering, the pouring out of His blood, a libation for the life of the whole world.

What is the shape of the soul? Perhaps the naked soul is shaped not like a kernel, but like a vessel. Though it is empty, this very emptiness is what makes union with God possible. For a musical instrument to play, it must have an open space to allow it to vibrate. If we stuff a drum or a violin full of sand, they will no longer make any sound. When our lives are filled with chaff like distractions and false idols of God and most of all, our own egos, we limit our ability to see the true God who is beyond any image. We would rush to fill up the emptiness, but if we can rest in that utter nakedness of heart, God will meet us in that place.

Thinking of the soul as a cup, the focus is no longer on “What is left that is me?” but on “What flows out of me?” A violin is beautiful in its own right, but it is the music that comes from it which really makes it magnificent. As a cup, the soul can be filled and overflowing. “He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). This living water is another image for the overwhelming love that springs from the heart. God is Love, and we are united to Him when we allow ourselves to love. “My cup runneth over,” says King David in the 23rd psalm.

Or to borrow a favorite quote from The Secret Garden, “Where you tend a rose, a thistle cannot grow.” When the soul is filled with love, there is no room for fear or bitterness. The bare earth in a winter garden, after it has been cleared of weeds and prepared, seems empty. But it is not truly barren. The cold ground is only waiting for spring to reveal its secret flowers.

Posted in Divine Love/ Christianity | 4 Comments

A Look Inside Our Two-Tier Health System

When strep throat hit our family this week, I had the eye-opening opportunity to compare the two worlds of health care in a single day.


Under the new health exchange, my children were put on Medi-Cal, our state’s new and expanded program of free health care for low income families, (Medicaid in other states). My husband and I, on the other hand, were offered a subsidy to buy private insurance if we chose. So when strep throat hit our family this week, I had the eye-opening opportunity to compare the two worlds of health care in one day. Until this week, I was blissfully unaware of the disparity in health care access between those with private health insurance and those on Medi-Cal. This story needs to be told.

In one day, I spent a total of 8 hours trying to get my son the care he needed. I spent only 20 minutes on myself. How did that happen? What challenges do Medi-Cal patients face?

Ludicrous Difficulty in Getting Paperwork Processed

Under the health care bill, Medi-Cal was expanded, and our local county Medi-Cal office received 30,000 new applications, according to an agent I spoke to. But they did not hire any additional staff to process them! How could this happen? The people affected by the resulting paperwork nightmare are the least likely to voice a complaint.

So it should come as no surprise, then, that although my paperwork was filed on time in December, and my children were approved to receive coverage starting on January 1st, as of March 25, we still had no official cards that would allow me to take a sick child to see a doctor. The office advised me to use the emergency room for any illness, however minor, and to call them if a child actually got sick so they could rush the paperwork through. Even “rushing” it through took several phone calls and five days, but by a true miracle, someone was finally able to give me the ID number over the phone by the day I really needed it.

I should add that, anecdotally, wait times for paperwork were not that great even before the flood of new applicants this year. One acquaintance with chronic and urgent health problems still had to wait 45 days to get her application reviewed. Rich or poor, everyone should have access to basic health care. This kind of delay is simply unacceptable. We are asking those with the least resources to somehow find the time and energy to fight their way through the system, spending hours on the phone, usually on hold, week after week, just to get someone to review their documents and mail them a piece of paper. Since we moved here years ago and I began following the local news, it seems that whenever California has a budget crisis, (which is always,) we cut funding to Medi-Cal and programs like it. The people affected by our callousness are real human beings, many of them my friends.

Challenges in Finding a Doctor

Our next challenge was in finding a doctor who would accept Medi-Cal insurance. I had foolishly assumed that most doctors would accept our insurance, or at least all the doctors who were affiliated with the various hospitals that we were approved for, including Stanford. It was going to be simple, right? Unfortunately not.

First, the Medi-Cal website which would refer us to a list of doctors in our area was– big surprise– not working. So I used one hospital’s hotline to refer us to a doctor. I hope that, with lots of diligence on my part, I will find additional doctors, (***See my new note about finding doctors at the conclusion,) but the hotline operator told me that she only had information for two– yes that is TWO– doctors in the area who would accept Medi-Cal. We tracked down one of them at the Fair Oaks Health Center in Redwood City. They told me that we could go in to see the nurse without an appointment, so we made it over there by late morning.

Segregated Medical Facilities?

The Fair Oaks Clinic was in a poor section of town, but behind their old building, which now appeared condemned, I saw with relief that they had built an attractive new building. The Mercury News reported on this new building that it would serve 20,000 “low-income residents in the southern part of the county, a group that is mostly Latino but also includes Tongans, African-Americans and Vietnamese, according to the county. The next closest county clinic is in San Mateo.”As we parked and wheeled my feverish child inside in his stroller, I was naively hopeful that we could get the simple strep test and be back home by lunchtime.

The clinic turned out to be a one-stop shop for all kinds of medical needs– from optometry to dentistry to pediatrics, and including a pharmacy. The atmosphere inside was very different from anything I had experienced in the many various clinics I’ve visited in my life. There were people everywhere, waiting in line in different areas, but most everyone was friendly and seemed completely unhurried.

The decor was new and clean, but absolutely bare bones. There was none of that forgettable artwork that you expect in a doctor’s office. There were no tables or magazines or toys or TVs. Our area upstairs had been filled with perhaps 30 chairs in rows. Children climbed over and under the chairs and amused themselves as best they could.

After waiting for a half hour to add our names to the list, the man managing the waiting room informed us (in the kindest possible way) that they would be closing for lunch, and we should come back in about an hour.

After lunch, this man processed our new patient paperwork and told me all about the clinic. In the future, we should try to come as close to 8 am as possible if we wanted to be seen that day. Apparently they have only one nurse on any given day, and there is a rush every morning when they open their doors. Furthermore, I should call ahead to check whether they would be open at all that day. Because they are so short-staffed, they often have to close their doors when the nurse can’t make it or when they need to hold a staff meeting.

We were lucky, though, there were only two people ahead of us in line, so we would get in today. Only two people, I thought, That shouldn’t take long! An hour and a half later, we were finally admitted. The nurse brought us back to a room and interviewed us thoroughly before finally taking the strep test. I was impressed by her patience and kindness and her real interest in our family. Here, we were not numbers to be shuffled through, as I sometimes feel at Kaiser. We were human beings. But the price of getting such personal attention was waiting a very long time to be seen.

Shortly after that, she reported that the strep test was positive, so he would need an antibiotic. But as a nurse, she could not prescribe it. We would have to wait until a doctor was available. Again, we were lucky to be seen at all, since they had a limited number of doctors. But another hour later, the doctor admitted us. Once again, I was impressed by the doctor’s friendliness coupled with a complete lack of hurry. She considered all my son’s symptoms thoroughly before agreeing with the positive test result that he most certainly had strep throat.

Next they sent us downstairs to the pharmacy, where, again, we waited in line for a long time. The pharmacist, like the nurse and the doctor, was really cheerful and thorough in making sure that I understood the directions.

It had been 8 hours since I made the initial phone call that morning, but my son had been seen and gotten the medicine he needed. The visit was completely free, and everyone was friendly and kind. But it was a grueling ordeal to manage with two small children, one of them sick. I cannot imagine how this system must affect those who get hourly wages. How could a working single mother, for instance, afford to take an entire day off work every time her child needed medical attention? But everyone at the clinic seemed to expect it would be this way. They knew the system; they were used to it, and were making the best of it.


By way of contrast, when I went to get my own strep test that evening, I simply dropped by Kaiser’s evening clinic, brought in my card (which I had received promptly by mail with no hassle at all), and was in and out in 15 minutes flat. During our breezy 7 minutes in the waiting room, we sat on padded and comfortable chairs, and looked at a magazine while the kids investigated the fancy water dispenser. When the test results came in, I received an automated email. What a radically different experience from the morning!

***New note: It’s been a week, and here is some new information and good news! There was yet another level of processing that I was unaware of. Now that my children have jumped through that extra (and final, I hope!) hoop, we have been referred to a different website which works and which shows many more options for doctors who will take Medi-Cal patients. Hallelujah! As it was, we did go to the best place for us under the circumstances. Fair Oaks was one of the few clinics that would see new patients without an initial healthy-visit appointment.

Also, I see on this new website that our county has 100,000 Medi-Cal patients. So adding those 30,000 new members without extra staff is no trivial project!

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The Ritual “Rebaking” of a Child vs. Baptism: What Two Rites of Rebirth Can Teach Us About the Problem of Existence

Rebaking the Child: from the bread paddle into the oven

When an ancient ritual persists into the twentieth century, surviving all the upheavals of modernization, it has surely touched something deep in the human psyche. Rebaking a child was one such rite, once practiced widely throughout Eastern Europe: by Russians, Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Chuvash, and others. It is referenced in various works of literature, fairy tales, and is even occasionally heard of in the present day. This folk custom, clearly a holdover from an ancient pagan rite, involved wrapping an infant in rye dough, (leaving a hole for the mouth and nose), tying them onto the bread paddle, and putting them into a warm, but not overly warm, oven. The exact details of the ceremony varied from one locale to another, but it was a ritual performed by women to save a child who was either born prematurely or who was deathly ill. Typically, the mother, the mother-in-law, or the village grandmother-healer (“babushka-znaxar’ka”) were present and would repeat the traditional words over the child.

Why does hearing about this custom give us shivers? It embodies so many powerful symbols in one action. On the one hand, it seems like a terrifying ordeal. A child on the verge of death is encased in dough like a little mummy, tied to a board as if a corpse, and placed into the tomblike oven. And yet, at the same time, the rite is not meant to kill but to heal. The stove is not hot, only gently warm. The folk beliefs about the custom declare that they are returning a child who was “undercooked” back to its mother’s womb to finish the job. Attended by various mother figures, wrapped in dough that is warm and alive with rising yeast, the baby is meant to be revitalized and returned to health.

Photo of a Russian Orthodox baptism

The rite of baptism has its roots in ancient Jewish purification rituals. Then later when it became a Christian sacrament, baptism acquired the symbolism of rebirth and of adoption as children of God. The gospel of John relates a conversation between Jesus Christ and Nicodemus in which Christ speaks of the necessity of being born again, and Nicodemus cannot understand, asking how can a child be returned to his mother’s womb? Baptism embodies some of the same symbolism of death-to-life as the ritual of rebaking. There is the connection with death and burial: total submersion in water was the original practice; prayers during the rite speak of the death of the “old man” and of being buried with Christ in the waters of the font. But the water of baptism is not meant to drown the baby (or adult); it heals. The water is meant to wash away impurities, to initiate a new life. The newly purified is raised to new life with Christ, welcomed into the very family of God, made “co-heirs with Christ of the heavenly kingdom”. He is named, surrounded by loving godparents, and clothed in a new white garment or christening gown.

There is a critical difference in the two rites of rebirth, and this difference reveals something about the pagan and Christian responses to the problem of existence. The goal of rebaking an infant is to send the child back to its mother (or perhaps to Mother-Earth, symbolized by the oven,) in order to fix them and return them to the same world in a better condition. Baptism, however, essentially involves movement from one world to another. It begins with renunciations of the old life and the devil. Its goal is to take us out of this world and bring us into a new and heavenly kingdom. There is the understanding of the rest of life on this earth as a sojourn, of living as if in exile. Whereas in the pagan ritual of rebaking, the problem is that a child is merely “unripe” for life in this world, the Christian ritual (and its Jewish precursor) focus on the need for cleansing. Baptism points to the view of existence in this world as inherently flawed. Death, disease, war, hatred, sin— they are an inalienable part of life on this planet. In the modern world, we understand with greater clarity how deeply death has been written into the very fabric of the cosmos. From the process of Evolution to the decay of the very atoms that make up all matter, death and loss cannot be separated from life in this world.

The pagan world view does not seek a grand solution to the problem of existence. At most, the pagan hopes to pacify her capricious gods and gain a temporary reprieve from death for herself or her loved ones. But Christianity grapples with the very heart of the problem of existence: how can a loving and omnipotent God create a world that is riddled to its very core with death and suffering? If God is truly all-loving and all-powerful, then there must be something more than the reality of this world.

What else then is there? There is a mystery here. If the Christian answer to this problem of existence were really as simplistic as “pie in the sky by and by,” as its doctrine is often caricatured, then it would not be a serious answer. But more often, theologians describe the kingdom of heaven as the soul’s mystical union with God through an overwhelming love for God and for all of creation.

butterfly on heart-shaped plant

The fact that the initiation rite of baptism is meant to be performed early in life and not only on a deathbed, points to the understanding that heaven does not begin after we die, but right now, while we still live. Heaven meets us in the present moment, not in some future time, as we strive to cultivate the ever more perfect love that will transform our whole existence by allowing us to participate in the very life of the Holy Trinity, who is Love. Atoms decay, and stars fade; the only thing that is truly eternal is Divine love. Eternal life in heaven only makes sense in the context of uniting ourselves to this perfect Love, a love that is truly stronger than death.

“Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.” (Song of Solomon 8:6-7)

Posted in Commentary, Divine Love/ Christianity | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Escaping the Ego: St. John of the Cross and an Anatomy of the Self

st-john-of-the-cross1The most brilliant and illuminating discussion of the human self that I have ever read is in a a book by Denys Turner, The Darkness of God:Negativity in Christian Mysticism.* He draws from Aristotle and adds a bit of his own humor to explain St. John of the Cross on the subject. I want to share highlights of that discussion here.

We begin the spiritual life by building up our “ascetical self.” The beginner works hard at fasting, keeping vigil, works of charity, and all his various labors for Christ. This is a necessary step. He learns self-control, self-denial, and gains strength of will. But this is not the end of the journey. As the beginner builds up his ascetic self, he is still unable to conquer the ego. He creates an ever more spiritual egoism, but can not overcome pride through his ascetic labors. He is caught: trapped in a precarious selfhood defined by three moral stereotypes that Turner has (delightfully) nicknamed “Feeble”, “Shameless”, and “Prig.” (Aristotle called them akrates, akolastos, and enkrates if any readers want to refer to Nichomachean Ethics— you know, just for fun.)

Feeble is the name for a person who knows what he ought to do, but does not do it. He feels shame and guilt for his failures to resist temptation.

Shameless is a person in a state of dissipation. Shameless does not see or care whether his actions are right or wrong and feels little or no guilt. “He pursues pleasure, but without any pleasure in the pursuit, out of an empty obsessiveness… Shameless seeks ever to squeeze decreasing amounts of pleasure out of an ever depleted source. In truth he is an addict.”

Prig is the morally “good” person who has conquered his own desires by sheer force of will. Prig feels no guilt because he can successfully control his desires. (For anyone unfamiliar with the British use of the word “prig,” just picture a person who is self-righteous and condescending.)

“All three are dominated by guilt: Feeble by its presence, Prig and Shameless by their need to be rid of it…but in all three cases, the ‘self’ dominates in the form of anxiety…What all three have in common is their egoism, their self-obsession. Feeble is obsessed by the ‘I’ he has failed to be, the same ‘I’ as Prig believes he has successfully constructed, and which Shameless flees.”

“This, then, is the ascetical self. It is a self trapped within the world marked out by these stereotypes… A more or less stable equilibrium of Feeble, Shameless, and Prig represents the best achievement of self which can be obtained by our own efforts…Within this moral world there are the alternatives only of egoism or masochism, self-obsession or self-annihilation.”

And so St. John of the Cross writes, first, in The Ascent of Mount Carmel that active ascetic labors are absolutely necessary. But then, as he begins The Dark Night of the Soul, he tersely dismisses them: “No matter how much an individual does through his own efforts, he cannot actively purify himself enough to be disposed in the least degree for the divine union of the perfection of love.”

Why? Active ascetics are “well disposed, generously intentioned, heavily disguised, spiritual egoists.” St. John says that they are partly Prig: their motive that God remove their imperfections is personal peace and freedom from guilt, rather than union with God. Partly Shameless: even in prayer they can’t help seeking for sensory satisfaction and consolations. And partly Feeble: they grow angry with themselves in an “unhumble impatience, for they want to become saints in a day.”

These spiritual egoists, these beginners, have achieved an important step. In Turner’s words, the ego they have constructed is a “genuine moral advance over the dissipated pre-selfhood of the pre-ascetical person.” But they must not stop here in self-congratulation, thinking they have arrived. St. John’s contemporary St. Theresa of Avila comments that with humility present, this stage is a most excellent one. But “if humility is lacking, we will remain here our whole life” in a state of arrested development.

What comes next, then? A crisis of self-knowledge that looks very much like depression. St. John calls this the passive nights of the soul. “Depression is the revolt of this self in despair at its disintegration. The passive nights, on the other hand, are the dawning of a realization that in this loss of selfhood, nothing is lost; it is the awakening of the capacity to live without the need for it.”

In depression, a person hopes to recover the lost sense of self and identity, or better yet, to construct a new self that is more stable and mature. On the other hand, the goal of the dark nights of the soul is not to recover the old, lost identity in any form. That self was always an illusion. Instead, we find that our true selfhood consists in our transformation in God, our total union with God in perfect love. Not that we are absorbed into God and cease to exist—love does not annihilate its beloved, and our loving Creator does not take away our personhood – but that we would be so filled with love that we no longer need our ego or care about having a separate identity from God.

*All quotes from Turner’s marvelous book are taken from chapter 10, pp. 226-251.

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Idolators Anonymous

Abraham_smashes_the_idolsHello. My name is Mary, and I am an idolator. But I’m willing to bet that you are, too.

Ask yourself this question, “Who is God?” and then see what you answer. Depending on how much you have thought about it, it might take you more or less time, but most people have an answer. It might look like a long list of qualities and theological statements. (My personal list begins with “God is love: unconditional, boundless, all-encompassing, mind-blowing, heart-crushing love…” I have a lot of other statements, too, but that one is at the top.) Theological statements about God are good, but they are only half of the answer, the part that comes from our head.

Now, what about the part of the definition that comes from your heart? Did your list include how you relate to God? Something like, “God is my king” or “God is my best friend”? Or if we’re very, very honest, maybe, “God is my Santa Claus” or “God is my plumber: I mostly think of him when something breaks!” There is some real soul-searching involved in answering, “Who is God to me?” in a 100% honest way. Once you have an answer, though, you can take a look and see what kind of a box you have asked God to occupy in your life. If He in the “best friend” box, for example, you may be expecting him to act like a best friend in being supportive, keeping you company, and lots of other ways. It is not a bad box, as boxes go, but let’s admit it: “divine and loving best friend” is an idol. It limits who God can be in your life.

“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them”  ― Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

I love this quote from Thomas Merton. It is true when we apply it to other people, and even more true when we apply it to God. Learning to love God for who He is also means shattering all our idols, opening all our boxes and allowing God to be God.

When theologians try to answer the question, “Who is God?” without describing mere idols, they call their efforts apophatic theology. In one approach to doing apophatic theology, they heap so many attributes and metaphors together that the images begin to contradict each other. The reality that emerges from this ultimate paradox is beyond any one of the metaphors. God is mercy. God is judge. God is our father. God is a mother hen. God is greater than the entire created universe. God is in the tiniest grain of sand. God is both priest and sacrifice. If I select just one or even several images of God, then they will always be an idol. Any image can only be true when it is combined with so many others that language itself breaks down and we see how God is totally beyond any image that we can conceive.

Another apophatic approach to answering “Who is God?” is to begin by negating every possible statement about who God is. God is not a being. God is not even the greatest being. But saying that God is not the greatest being is also not true. God is beyond any category of being or non-being that we can make. The same thing applies to any quality we can think of. God is Truth, but not in the limited sense of a truth that I can prove using a series of logical statements. God is not a syllogism, and not even a non-syllogism. If I say, “God is love,” but I think of love in any merely human way– tainted by a desire to possess or control its object, for example– then God is not love. God’s love is so pure and so limitless that we cannot begin to fathom it. If I form any idea in my mind of what that kind of love might look like, it will always fail to grasp the real infinity of true divine love.

Of all possible metaphors, however, Love is the one that St. John, the apostle whom Jesus loved, chooses, and Love comes the closest that any metaphor can to describing God. This is because love takes us outside ourselves. Love helps us to get beyond our own ego and glimpse the unspeakably beautiful reality that is normally obscured by an idol.

What does it feel like when our idols of God are shattered? It often feels like being broken. The Biblical metaphor of the flawed clay pot that the Potter smashes in order to reshape it comes to mind. St. John of the Cross describes the process as the Dark Night of the Soul. Initially, God seems cold and distant, or even non-existent. This happens when we have realized that our old perception of God was actually a lifeless, mute idol, but we have not yet learned to recognize the voice of the true God who has been with us all along. A short, but powerful poem by Madeleine L’Engle expresses this process vividly:

“The Birth of Love”
To learn to love
is to be stripped of all love
until you are wholly without love
until you have gone
naked and afraid
into this cold and dark place
where all love is taken from you
you will not know
that you are wholly within love.

Smashing our personal idols of God feels intensely painful, but ultimately, it leads to a tremendous sense of relief and freedom. The reality will be very different from what we expected and imagined that we wanted, yes, but it will also be better, greater. Most importantly, it will be true. Santa Claus is a mere wraith in a red suit when compared to the reality beyond reality that is God. Santa would give us toys that, in time, always break or lose their appeal. But the real God would make us whole and give us eternal life.


Bonus: links to two related blog posts by Fr. Aidan Kimel, who frequently seems to be thinking about the same topics that I am:

1. On how we tend to think of God as a mere god, but shouldn’t.

2. A little taste of apophatic theology, not difficult to read. 

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A Universal Truth that Cannot Be Hidden

20131020-004734.jpgLove. “God is love,” the scripture says. “God is love,” the saints all tell us– not only in the Christian tradition, but in the mystical literature of Islam, Judaism, and even sometimes Hinduism. This is such a universal truth that it cannot be hidden from anyone who sincerely seeks to know God.

But God as Love is most perfectly revealed in Christianity, in the person of Jesus Christ, who is Divine Love incarnate. To say that the fullness of infinite, all-surpassing Divine Love became incarnate as an ordinary human being is an insane statement– truly mind-boggling– but that is precisely the core of Christian belief. No other religion claims this. All great religions and philosophies teach a version of the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but it is only Jesus Christ who takes it to its farthest extreme: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt 5:44). It is Jesus Christ who says, “Father forgive them,” even as he is hanging on the cross.

But first, what is love? We apply this word so broadly. I love cookies. I love Ewan MacGregor. I love your dress. Sometimes we say “love” to mean “I approve of” or “I desire.” In the case of mere approval, we are sitting in judgment over something or someone, and this is not really love. In the case of desire, human love tends toward possessiveness, which is not perfect love either. There is a line at the end of a Pride and Prejudice movie adaptation where Lizzie Bennett says, “Now I shall no longer call him Mr. Darcy, but my Mr. Darcy.” Even in a Jane Austen film, we feel the need to insert a little sense of ownership into love. Lizzie’s statement was harmless enough, but human love can very easily degenerate into jealousy, greed, the need to control, and even to abuse. Divine love, however, is love without judgment or the desire to possess. God loves and gives us total freedom to hate him in return. He never forces himself on us.

Human love is very often one-sided (or at least lop-sided). What would be left of Shakespeare and classical literature without the theme of unrequited love? As an experiment, the next time you see a Hollywood film with a kissing scene, look closely at the actors’ body language: very frequently, one person is more demonstrative while the other is holding something back– allowing themselves to be kissed, but not fully reciprocating. How often does the same happen in real life? But with God, we never have to fear that He will hold anything back. God loves us infinitely and unconditionally.

The goal of Christianity is union with God. And what that looks like, of course, is that we too become filled with divine Love. To experience God means literally to love, and to love ever more perfectly– not to possess or control or to receive some personal gain from it, but simply to love, and to love divinely, without bounds or conditions. The saints tell us that God dwells in our hearts; we must not seek him outside ourselves but within– why? because he is Love.

When God created man in his own image, it means that he gave every person the capacity to love and be loved. It is our most natural instinct. From the moment we are born and take our first breath, babies seek comfort in the loving embrace of their mothers. Human parents always fall short, of course, but parenthood is meant to point the way to God’s even more perfect love. Romantic love and marriage are, likewise, meant to point the way to God’s love. This love comes so naturally to us, and though it, too, falls short, romantic love is also meant to point the way to God’s total and radical love. By learning to love another, we take our first steps towards learning God’s kind of love.

It is so difficult for us to love Love itself, to love God who is infinite and beyond all our ability to conceive. How can we love what we do not know? So He commands us to love Him through loving our neighbors, the people that cross our path each day. And then, he not only gives himself a name, but actually takes flesh and lives among men: the Son of God, Jesus Christ. It is astonishing to think about!

The mystery of the Trinity ceases to be an arcane Byzantine doctrine when seen in light of God as Love. God as only one would be selfish. God as only two would be unconcerned with the rest of creation, in the same way that two lovers can ignore the rest of the world and be consumed with adoring each other. But God as three is perfect love: overflowing to the whole world, creating new life, filling all things with his love.

Love is the heart and goal of all the trappings of religion: the forms of worship, the ascetic and spiritual disciplines, teaching the virtues, enduring sorrows and illnesses, practicing gratitude. The goal is to overcome our ego and allow us to love. So many obstacles prevent us from loving truly. We are afraid to risk pain and rejection. Or we are so wrapped up in ourselves that we cannot see others for who they are. Or we are not willing to let others be themselves, but want to make them an extension of our own self. It is a life’s work to learn to love. Humility, the most important of the virtues, does not mean learning to think that you are a worm. It means being able to think about others first, a precondition for love. Even prayer, the saints agree, becomes perfect prayer when all words finally cease and it becomes a silent expression of pure love and adoration.

The seeds of divine love have been sown in all our hearts. Tending them becomes a labor of joy as they begin to bear fruit. And the fruit of Love that they bear is God Himself.

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