We prayed for rain on Sunday. Yesterday a gentle drizzle began. By this morning we had accumulated a quarter of an inch, which in this part of God’s creation is a significant amount. We are all very grateful.
It had another consequence, however. Every Ash Wednesday I go out to one of the local parks, set up a sign and wait for folks to come by for a brief imposition of ashes rite. Usually I get between 10 and 20 people. Yesterday one wet teen came by and asked me for the time, but not ashes. Everyone was huddled up out of the weather.
Ashes and rain are both purging elements. You can make soap with the lye in ashes, and water is the great solvent of dirt. Together you get cleanness. Cleanness is a Lenten theme. We usually think of it as a purging of sin, as one lady explained to me—a washing away of the black spots that stick to your soul. I like the image because it’s clear that black spots are not ultimately of our essential make-up. They are added and should be removed. There’s an initial cleanness deep within, beneath all our sin, that is the Christian starting point to talk about what it means to be human. Black spots need to go because they obstruct something deeply true. The damage and distort something essential. Getting clean of them is a release back toward full humanity.
All major religious traditions of the world recognize that something about existence is wrong: out of joint, blind to the truth, guilty, missing the point, unaware—it’s named in many ways. All major religions also identify a way back to future wholeness/emptiness/redemption/heaven/awareness/freedom/innocence—it’s named in many ways.
May the rain fall on you.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” In the western Judeo-Christian tradition ashes have been a reminder of our mortality. It’s an interesting symbol. Ashes are what is left when something is consumed by fire. Ashes are what is fireproof about something. Ashes are not annihilation, as we often think, but rather purification.
When I was a wee one, the people we lived with practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. At the beginning of the dry season hey would choose a section of jungle that they wanted to plant in corn, beans and other crops, clear out the underbrush with a machete, and then a month or so later, fell all the trees. During the dry season they would make use of the wood of the trees as fuel or lumber. When all the rest was thoroughly dry they would set the rest on fire. The fire would quickly consume the slash from the trees, the dry vines and leaves and twigs from the clearing, and expose plantable ground sprinkled with alkaline ashes to counteract the largely acid soils. Wood and leaves are reduced to fertilizer.
The Christian understanding of death is that it does not render a final state, but rather is the pathway to new life. Death is a fire that reduces us to what is fireproof, fertilizer for new and greater life. This is what the Church remembers during the cycle of Lent, Holy Week and Eastertide.
“Remember that you are fertilizer, and to new life you shall return.”
I have a collection of metal bells. I’m partial to brass ones, and they have to have either something very curious or interesting about them, or a pure, single tone when rung. One of the interesting ones is an old Sanctus bell set that I bought in an antique store in south Texas. It undoubtedly came out of some small Roman Catholic church in rural Mexico. The brass has turned green with age, and the tones—well, the center bell has a nice tone, but the two side bells just make it all a bell-ringing nightmare. If it was intended to jar the faithful out of stupor at significant moments of the Mass it certainly did so in s not-so-kind voice. Another is a simple brass affair that I bought in a market in Ecuador. I hung it on a simple metal hanger, and when swung it sings with a pure, single voice—no overtones or reverberations until the sound begins to fade.
I have begun to think about my life lately. There are a lot of things I like to do. I am an outdoorsman, a birdwatcher, an amateur wood-smith, and an even more amateur potter. I know how to make an arrowhead out of a piece of flint. I am a falconer, and I love taking care of my orchard. I love being with people and being alone. Many voices speak in the things I like to do. Some of them do not always sing in harmony. I’m finding, however, that with time the voices that are not central to who I am within are beginning to fade in the intensity of their clamor. Most of all I am a lover and a priest. I build bridges between hearts, especially those of my amazing wife and I. I build bridges between God and people, and I love to watch the flowering of the Spirit within an earnest heart. I build bridges between peoples and the rest of creation. The awe in the face of school children when they see my Red-tailed Hawk up close and personal is an awe of the earth herself, something I hope they never forget.
Back in the dark ages, John Denver crooned, “love is a light that shines from heart to heart.”1 Maybe being a lover and a priest is really the same voice singing two verses of the same song. There may be a time when I don’t do all the stuff I like to do, but it will be OK. As long as I am a lover and a priest I am happy to sing with one voice.
1John Denver, “Heart to Heart” on the album, Seasons of the Heart, (1982) (http://johndenver.com/albums/seasons-of-the-heart/)
My father, after translating the New Testament into the Tsafiqui language of western Ecuador, was offered a PhD in Linguistics from the State University of New York. His translation would qualify as his dissertation, all he had to do was to spend a year on campus taking some classes. He was an intelligent man, it wouldn’t have been much of a challenge, but he turned the offer down. He thought it would be a waste of his time. His heart was not in degrees but in Bible translation.
Monday at about 3:30 I was called back into the room at Virginia Theological Seminary and three people said, “Congratulations, Dr. Moore, you are now a doctor of the Church.” Champagne was poured, pictures were taken, and now I have the level of academic degree that my father passed up. It was not a waste of time for me, it was a journey into knowledge, something I have always treasured. And of course, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. Karisse said last night, “You don’t look any different.” I replied, “I don’t really feel any different either—except that now I know I can hold my own with most people in the church in theological discourse. Whether I will or not is another matter. I’m still “Fr. Paul” to my people, and my cards don’t have “Doctor” on them anywhere.
So, what does it mean? After the fall of the Roman Empire the early Benedictine monasteries became repositories of learning, setting up schools for their monks and for priests. These early seminaries eventually gave rise to universities. Learning has been part of the tradition of the Christian faith since very early on. I’m following the tradition. But in a deeper sense, we are all called into the heart of God, which is in part a journey of learning. If all my “book-larnin'” can help me be a better Christian, priest, pastor and teacher, then it has served its purpose.
Otherwise it WOULD have been a waste of time!
For me it’s as good as begun. It began yesterday when I spent the whole day traveling from the southwest corner of New Mexico to Washington DC (my granddaughter wanted to know if I had met President Trump!) to Alexandria, and now to Virginia Theological Seminary. This afternoon I sit with my committee and defend my doctoral thesis. The ordeal that ends this 3-year academic and spiritual quest is under way. At this moment, waiting for 1 o’clock to roll around, it’s going painfully slowly. About 3:45, with 15 minutes left, I’m sure I will wonder where the time has gone.
Silver City, New Mexico, where I live, is a typical western town, founded in the mid-1800’s around mining and ranching. One of its schools is the oldest founded elementary school in New Mexico. Now it is the county seat. A third of the county’s people live there, and its diverse economy is based on not just mining and farming, but the National Forest, a burgeoning tourist industry, government and education.
Just a few decades before, Virginia Theological Seminary was established on a farm road outside the small river-side town of Alexandria. One of the Episcopal Church’s first seminaries, it has grown, evolved and matured. Now “Seminary Road” is one of the main streets of Alexandria, and the school itself is far from the city limits.
Two streams are about to flow together in my being, to coalesce in a three-hour discussion about life, faith and culture, and what I’ve learned about it. I’m nervous, but confident, eager, yet hesitant, ready yet unprepared.
I guess I just have to dive into and see where this joining of the waters is going to take me…
The city of Cape Town, South Africa, has just imposed daily water consumption limits of 50 liters per person per day. That’s about 13 gallons. The city officials estimate that only just over half of the people are complying, and water hoarding has kicked into high gear. Due to climate change and the worst drought in a century, they expect that if the population does not restrict its usage of water the taps will run dry on April 16.
The average American shower consumes 17 gallons, and we flush almost 19 gallons down our toilets. We water our lawns and wash our cars and let water run in the sink until it’s hot (I know—I’m as guilty as anyone!) Nobody wants “Day Zero,” as the Capetonians are calling it, to arrive in Cape Town or in Silver City or anywhere. If there is no water there is no human life.
There is a deeper, underlying problem. How do we effectively set limits we all abide by? Noble selves will limit themselves, and that is always the ground-zero of true reform, but when we all decide to pull back, the one rogue who decides not to abide by the rule has a heyday. The rogue sells out the future of the rest for their own short-term gain. Apparently 45% of Cape Town is rogue! The city officials are saying, “We can no longer ask people to stop wasting water. We must force them.”1
Therefore, we have law enforcement protocols in every society—but even law enforcement can go rogue. It can be harnessed to the good of the few at the expense of the good of the many. Ultimately, who is the watchdog for the watchdog? Societies have used religion to that effect, but even that is not foolproof.
Noble selves will limit themselves, for they know that we are all connected. Yes, there will be rogues who imagine that they can stand outside the Oneness, and they must be deterred, but in the final analysis, nobility will save us; the nobility that humbly sees that all is really One in the mind of God, and what each and every one does affects us all. For the sake of Cape Town, I will conserve water.
This morning Karisse and I got up a bit early and saw the blood-blue-moon. It got me thinking about eclipses. Astronomical eclipses happen when a celestial body comes between another such body and its primary star. In this case, the earth blocks the light from the sun that would normally reflect off the moon. The moon’s usual reflected light is eclipsed by the earth.
There are others that deserve our attention as well. What political discussions are going on right now that eclipse a view of what the reality is for sectors of our society, effectively diverting our attention to unimportant things? What personal habits to we maintain that eclipse the attention that should go to more essential aspects of human living, like silence, compassion and justice? What financial decisions do we make that are convenient, but serve only to divert us from deeper issues of value and integrity? Being a churchman I can ask how does organized religion may inadvertently (or perhaps intentionally on a subconscious level) focus on things that do not shed light in order to avoid the greater work of what does? Does ritual so enshrine our past that we lose sight of our mission? Some things need to be eclipsed so that others are not.
Kenneth Wilbur, in his book, A Brief History of Everything, talks about holarchies, that the universe and all existence is structured on a hierarchy of holons. A holon is a unit that is complete in and of itself, yet is made up of smaller holons, and is itself a component part of a greater holon. He talks about dominator hierarchies vs. natural hierarchies. He says, “When any holon in a natural holarchy usurps its position and attempts to dominate the whole, then you get a pathological or dominator hierarchy—a cancerous cell dominates the body, or a fascist dictator dominates the social system, or a repressive ego dominates the organism, and so on.”1
Eclipses deserve our very special attention. They show us where our egos are trying to fool us into letting them drive the world.
1Wilber, Ken. A Brief History of Everything (p. 40). Shambhala (1996, 2000). Kindle Edition.