Author Archives: watchingthespaces

About watchingthespaces

I like to watch the spaces between the things that other people see, the overflowing gaps and the chock-full emptiness.

Pain

I was just told by a doctor friend that medical professionals in the 1990’s held to a doctrine of “no pain.”  Patients were prescribed pain killers of whatever power was needed to keep their pain at a minimum, even narcotics. The general wisdom of the day was that narcotics, when administered by a medical professional, were not addictive.  But they are, and in trying to keep patients pain-free during the 90’s now we have a whole generation of people addicted to prescription pain medication.  The number of deaths due to overdose of prescription pain medication have just passed up the number of automobile-related deaths in this country.  In his terms, we have created a monster.

Yes, I know that pain past a certain threshold debilitates rather than enhances healing, but the sticky wicket is where to locate that threshold.  Common wisdom says the person themselves knows what that threshold is, and that certainly has some truth in it.  However, as any athletics coach will tell you, most people underestimate their own ability to deal with pain.  Someone from outside of them has to push their growing edge, shouting, “No pain, no gain!”

In my faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ does that.  Yes, Jesus died to do something I could not do for myself, but I think the operative level of that event in my life now is to prod and push me to die to sin that I might live to the Spirit of God.  Such deaths are always painful to the ego, for they strip the ego of all the power-grabs it has done in one’s life.  The door frame on the narrow gate to heaven is not large enough to allow anything but the proper role of my ego through, that of self-preservation and self-maintenance.  All else hangs up on the lintel and posts.  Passage through to abundant life will cost me.

The divine coach whispers in our ear (tenderly and lovingly, of course,) “Dear one, no pain, no gain!”

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Stabilitas

Benedict of Nursia was one of the first abbots to write an official rule for his monastery.  It was based on previous works by John Cassian and others, but it was the first to codify the monastic life in a way that was moderate yet disciplined.  In it he includes references in a couple of places to the vow of stabilitas, or the commitment to live in the monastery under the rule the rest of one’s life.  There were monks at the time who did not follow this rule.  They were Sarabaites, who wandered around in twos and threes, unwilling to submit to anything but their own whims, and Gyrovagues, who wandered from monastery to monastery without committing themselves to any one community.

The monastic life has provided much grist for the mill of thought about Christian living outside of monasteries.  The Church has never been content with the idea that monks are somehow essentially different from non-monks.  Though they practice the disciplines of the faith in particular rigor, the principles behind the rules in most orders can be applied in not-so-rigorous ways outside the cloister walls.  What can we possibly do with stabilitas in today’s hectic, transient and mobile world?

Interestingly, other writers of the time have helped us.  Gregory the Great describes the heart of stabilitas as a “self-gathering,” the discipline of the heart that comes back continually to the Ground of our being, the heart of God.  He, John Cassian, and others define the essence of stabilitas not in the outward conformity to a given place for life, but the inner conformity of the soul to the Spirit of God.  The external practice is intended to support the internal discipline.

Stabilitas, then, has to do with groundedness.  We all know people who are grounded and people who are not.  I saw a homeless man yesterday, crouched on the sidewalk clutching his dog.  His life’s possessions were perched in a grocery basket with a sign on the top advertising his desire to travel—anywhere that wasn’t here.  From there I went to visit a priest friend of mine who is dying.  In contrast, this man spent the time telling me how grateful he was for all his relationships.  This man was grounded, the homeless man was not.  And we have the abuses today as well.  People tell me, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”  For some they are wounded souls whom the Church has abused.  For others however, true Sarabaites, are unwilling to submit themselves to any organized religious discipline.  Others wander from church to synagogue to temple and never really land anywhere, justifying their wandering ungroundedness by claiming “largeness of soul.”

Groundedness has to do with the communion of the human spirit with God’s Spirit.  Paul tells us in Romans 8 that the one who lives by the Spirit pleases God.  When our spirits, who draw their life-breath from the Spirit of God, are in communion with God our lives get progressively more grounded.  How to?  Study of the Scriptures of one’s faith, disciplined times of prayer, regular attendance at the gatherings of your community of faith, generosity of time, energy, talent and treasure to the cause of good as espoused in your community, and the cultivation of an open, humble spirit that is always ready to be surprised by God.

(I know, I know, you knew I’d say that, didn’t you?)

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Emergence

I just read The Great Emergence, How Christianity is Changing and Why, by Phyllis Tickle.  I was reluctant to read it at first because the title gave me to think it was all about how we ought to project our liturgies on screens on the wall and sing only praise music. I don’t have a problem with projected liturgies or praise music, but I do object to a steady diet of them.  In my current church we do neither. And we’re having young families with children join.

Dr. Tickle’s book is not about that.  It traces the trajectory of reshuffling of our common life every 500 years or so since the time of Christ. Limiting her scope as she does to the Christian Church, she doesn’t trace the pattern back before Christ, and later in the book she limits it to just the North American Christian expression.  Fair enough.  Emergence is something that happens, as she says, every 500 years or so. The last one was the Renaissance and the Reformation.  It marked a 100 years of upheaval not only of our Christian worship, doctrine and theology, but of society itself. She artfully highlights markers in our own time of just so cataclysmic an upheaval.  No wonder we’re an anxious people!

But what does it mean for us today? I really don’t want to be beheaded or burned at the stake by other Christians for my beliefs.  Hopefully we learned 500 years ago that that doesn’t really work. On the other hand, some of the Church’s greatest theologians were pioneer thinkers of the day.  The general unsettledess of the world gave freedom for new forms of expressing the old truths of the faith in ways that reformed, reestablished and re-energized the community of faith.  From this time we got the Jesuits, the Lutherans, the Calvinists and a push of exploration that took the faith to the four corners of the earth. Yes, there were some dead ends, that’s the risk. The stakes are high, and the winnings can be high.  Exciting times!

For instance, something that I find really exciting is what has been called the New Monasticism. Christians have begun once again to gather in intentional communities, seeking to support their collective view of the Kingdom of God, and to pray and work for its coming. It shows that not all Christians want a consumer-faith.  Such experiments take guts, nerve, a willingness to risk the fragile offerings of one’s creativity to the mix and see what happens.   Bullies and cowards will not win the day in the end, only those who are willing to risk honestly, authentically and humbly.

Exciting times indeed!

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Mystery

In today’s class on Spirituality and Palliative Care we were asked to discuss, “What mystery do you want to pay more attention to at this time in your life?” What came to me is the following poem;

Mystery

The world that lives down the path not taken,

The silence after the word is spoken,

Just out of sight now, under the bracken,

What’s in the hand when nothing is given…

 

What opens the eyes to see?

What cracks the ear to hear?

What is it that drives the mystery home

Like nails on a cross too dear?

 

I know that it’s out there, hiding,

The Elf with the leprechaun’s gold,

That can swallow you whole without even straining,

Or leave you to stand in the cold.

 

I’m merely the witch that brings forth the apple,

That can kill your dream dead in its tracks.

But my magic is short, it’s really not able

To hand life to you off of the racks.

 

That’s your task, and we Hercules, all

Who find at the end of the day,

That cunning and strength cannot bring about

The song of the kids in the hay.

 

So here is the mystery right in my face,

Moment by moment staring you down,

That life is but Life, it’s not really a race,

But a grace to see what you own.

prm, 1/13/15

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Beauty

I’m still processing my visit to the Washington National Cathedral yesterday. It is truly a magnificent place. The pillars are really stone (not hollow with the sound system speakers hidden within like at St. Martin’s, Houston.) The carving in the pulpit is stone, depicting famous preachers of our tradition from centuries past, and big enough to have a small family picnic in! The lofty arches are embellished with fancy bosses of religious and other symbols. It seems that every little opportunity was taken to add art. No bosses are the same, no finials, no buttresses for arches, they all have a touch of something special. Walking down one of the side aisles is a museum of creativity and beauty.

What constitutes beauty? There are cultural filters, social filters and personal filters on each one of our ideas about beauty, yet we can all agree that beauty is where you find it. One can describe the elements of beauty, but never exhaustively. One can categorize different kinds of beauty—perhaps by the means by which we apprehend it: eyes, ears or touch. One can even try to quantify it, describing one thing as more beautiful than another. But in the end beauty is something we all recognize when we see it, even if we can’t fully comprehend it.

If God is the source of all that is good one of the things most religious traditions teach in one way or another is that beauty is good. Beauty, in whatever form we find it, elevates us to noble things, all of which find their origin in God. Beauty, then, because it is so sublime, points us yet beyond itself to the source of all that is sublime. Bonnhoeffer’s three great virtues, truth, beauty and goodness, stand as three pillars of our awareness of the divine, hidden just out of sight and yet all around.

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Belonging

“Since the celebrated moment in 1907 when workmen laid the foundation stone of Washington National Cathedral, the majestic structure has played a vital role in our nation’s history. The Cathedral has long served as a grand spiritual center where Americans unite to worship and pray, mourn the passing of world leaders, and confront the pressing moral and social issues of the day.”

This is taken from the History page of the Cathedral’s website. It is a fabulous building, finished in 1990, with amazing stonework throughout. In the earthquake of 2011 many parts of it were damaged and the reconstruction work is obvious as you approach and as you enter. Yet when I arrived for church this morning they were getting ready for their “family service” at 9 with 3 baptisms on this, the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. We sang lofty yet easy-to-sing music, we heard a fabulous sermon, and we watched as three babies were recognized as children of God and of the Church. Then we wandered around taking pictures and gawking at the artwork, the craftsmanship and the awe-inspiring spaces.

When I was growing up in Ecuador there are 17th century cathedrals and basilicas there as well. Some of them took a lot longer than 83 years to build. The Basilica del Voto Nacional in Quito will never be finished because there is a legend that says that when the last stone is laid the world will come to an end! But as a Protestant in a country that was at one time officially run by the See of Rome I never felt fully “at home” in them. Here, in the Washington National Cathedral, I felt at home. This is a house of worship for the Nation and for the nations, but it’s an Episcopal church, and I felt like I belong.

Belonging—that wonderful feeling of oneness, of being included, part of something bigger than we are, is a feeling that is never fully satisfied in this life, for ultimately it is a longing for belonging in the Godhead, our source and our end, where we will join in the dance of love and respect of the Trinity. But it’s nice to get close!

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Thick

You’ve all heard of readings or professors or preachers you would define as “thick.” Listening or reading them is hard work because they use obtuse and difficult phraseology sprinkled liberally with big words! But in theological circles “thick” has another meaning. It means deep, multifaceted, profound, something where the real meaning is not necessarily obvious at first blush. Of course, the Bible is really “thick” in this sense, though some interpretations of it are not.

We had a “thick” session this morning. Yes, we got a whole lot of information, but the information wasn’t just dry dates about dead people. It came alive. For example, do you know why the Franciscans take a vow of poverty? Yes, Jesus was poor in the sense that he was an itinerant preacher who didn’t really own anything of significance, but the meaning for the Franciscans is thicker than that. At the time of Francis there were two kinds of money. One was called “big money,” and it was made of silver coin. Its value was tied directly to its weight. Because of that it never suffered from inflation. The other was a coin, called “little money,” from which silver had been chipped. Depending on how much had been chipped off the weight was correspondingly less and it was worth less. The government, the Church and the rich dealt in big money, and they paid the poor in little money. They kept the poor in their poverty by chipping off more and more of the silver, subjecting them to greater and greater inflation of prices. Money in Francis’ day was exploitative of the poor. Francis wanted to be associated with the poor, the “minor” people, and called his order the Friars Minor. He forbade his brothers the use of any money whatsoever as a statement of solidarity with the poor, a critique of the unfair practices of the government, the rich, and the Church. They are poor as a statement of justice, proclaiming that God sees us all the same, so it is wrong to treat people unfairly or to share in systems that are unjust. Wow—that’s “thick!”

It invites us to see our own lives through a “thick” lens. What are the secondary and tertiary effects of some of the things we do? For instance, taking fifteen minutes in the morning for meditation and prayer lowers your blood pressure, increases your immune system and pumps up your endorphins. You’re more likely to smile, spreading good will in the world. Stressors that normally would beat you down won’t have the same control of you. Interesting studies of late show that if your immune system is pumped up you actually positively affect the immune system of others around you. For a simple 15 minute break in the morning you make the world a better place.

Here’s another a little harder to face. Here in Silver City we’re not supposed to be getting any more plastic grocery bags at Albertsons and Walmart. The bags are one of the most common eye-sores in our community when they blow around and catch on things in the wind. That’s bad enough, but they eventually blow into the ocean where sea-turtles, who eat a lot of jellyfish, often eat them thinking they are food. Sea turtles are starving to death with full stomachs—full of plastic grocery bags. What is more, there are whole “islands” of floating bits and pieces of plastic in the oceans that are hundreds of miles long and wide, eddies of human trash. Now I dare you to grouse about not getting bags?

Can we live as thick people?

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