As the sun rose this morning there was a silly monster with big ears frothing through the sea air above Cooke’s Peak. Behind her her banner of pink and grey stretched taught and the mangled flotsam of conquests floated brightly.
I’m not nearly as good as Helen McDonald in her best-selling book, H is for Hawk (Random House, 2014). Her combinations of words are surprisingly unexpected and descriptive at the same time. Words are beautiful because they are always a bit imprecise. Their meanings bleed into one another, overstepping their bounds when pushed hard enough. When they fall into an easy lockstep we call it poetry. When we imagine they have only one scientific meaning they suddenly wither and die. Jean-Louis Chrétien in his book, The Ark of Speech, (Routledge, 2004) opens up the door into that mystical space between sound and meaning where everything can happen and usually does. If the anthropologists are right when they say that language is the most complete symbol system for a culture then our cultures are truly mystical experiences when we speak.
Augustine of Hippo said, “We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.” (Sermon 2) As long as we are humble enough, as long as we open ourselves to being mystics when we speak, God is known to be among us. No wonder the Evangelist calls the Son of God the “Word!”
I will open my mouth carefully today…
I just got back from El Paso from the funeral of a priest who was ordained in this Diocese. He served at a big church in downtown El Paso, then helped start St. Francis on the Hill. When the church split over the role of homosexuals in the Church he decided to leave with the group who have become known as the Anglicans. He served several places, including in Alpine, TX, and then retired. He was buried by special arrangements by one of our Bishops out of the church he helped start, and his ashes will be inured in their columbarium. And he was a partnered homosexual man. He must have gone Anglican because the Episcopal bishop at the time was more anti-homosexual than the Anglicans today. Our stories are interwoven. They crisscross and resurface where you least expect, usually involving strange bedfellows and hidden purposes. The issue is never really the issue.
History is one slant on this mishmash, usually told by the winners, but when you look closely nothing is so clear after all. Nobody is purely one thing or another, we are all a mix of ideas. “Liberal” and “Conservative” are about as real as “normal.” Nobody really fits the description perfectly. There are always exceptions, wiggle room and back doors.
Pamela Cooper-White wrote a book called, Braided Selves (Cascade Books, 2011). She describes the self as a braid of many selves. The illusion of a center is nothing but that, an illusion. She describes is a helpful image to talk about the experience of minorities and others who are not in power. That may be so, for when you apply the image to the “Self” of history that’s exactly what it is, a braid of threads, some greater and some smaller, some more powerful and some less so, that interweaves to create the society in which we live.
It is SO important to see each strand for what it is and not what it is not. It is SO important to see each person for who they are and not who they are not. And it is SO important to appreciate the audacious splendor of the braid!
Today all across the United States people are lining up to see the eclipse. Where I live in southern New Mexico it would be a long drive to get to where I could see it in totality, so I’ll skip this time. Last night on the news I saw that there are places in the nation where thousands and thousands of people are gathering with the proper eye-protection. Traffic lines miles long were shown. The hotels are all full, people were camping out, it has become something of a national party. Our local school district has decided to keep all the students inside for safety’s sake, and to broadcast the full eclipse in libraries and cafeterias for all to watch. I have to admit that I’ll have it in a little window on my computer as well. I can understand. The last time some of these areas had a total eclipse was in 1918.
What, really, is being eclipsed? The solar eclipse has eclipsed our living for a time. There are fears that animals will get disoriented, but I think it’s we who will feel disoriented. It is we who, being light-loving beings, will find a daytime night a bit disconcerting. In Helen McDonald’s wonderful book, H is for Hawk, she describes how the training of a goshawk helped her work through the grief of losing her father. Right at the end of the book her life is once again turned topsy-turvy as an earthquake hits Cambridge where she lives. She dashes downstairs to check on Mabel, the hawk. The hawk is fast asleep and when woken up seems to wonder what all the commotion is all about, then puts her head back under her wing and goes to sleep again. She writes that the wildness we ascribe to them is not the wildness of their being. We can try to be a hawk, and we can imagine that the hawk is a human, but ultimately neither is possible or appropriate. Like the solar eclipse, we are eclipsed when we think we are the center of the world.
I’ll watch the eclipse on my computer screen, and I’ll do my work in the office and around town today, and I’ll remember that sometimes the Mystery at the center of the universe eclipses me, giving me an opportunity to find my head.
What is the mind?
Again this morning I was sitting in my office looking out at Cooke’s Peak and thinking about my mind. Now, I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about my mind, I was supposed to be focusing on my breathing, the sensation of my body in the chair and the fact of things out the window (without trying to tell myself their backstories!) but one of the distractions that drifted through my head was about my mind.
The mind is an amazing thing. We live in our minds. We imagine, construct, think and feel, assume and talk all in our minds. The stories we live by emerge in the mind. If that is so, why do our Buddhist sisters and brothers talk about “mindfulness?” They have something rather different in mind than world-making stories. They are not talking about thoughts and feelings running where they will, imagining worlds that may or may not have anything to do with reality. They are talking about the harnessing of the powers of the mind to see what is really there and not what is not. Cooke’s Peak is there. It has a story, yes, many stories in fact. It has a geological story, an ecological story, a human story and a mystical story, and they all intertwine. But mindfulness is not telling stories, it is seeing the mountain. Mindfulness sees that the mountain has stories, but is not merely its stories.
We all have stories, and they are vitally important, but we are not merely our stories. We are people. The fact of me comes before the stories of me. The fact of you comes before the stories of you. Until I see the fact of you I cannot truly hear your stories.
What does it mean to be of a common mind? This morning there has been a flurry of e-mails about a piece that came out in one of the local newspapers about us. Some found it apt, well-written and really funny. Others found it poorly written, inaccurate and troublesome that it appeared without our screening and without an author’s name attached. Wow, two people standing side by side see the same event and come up with totally different ideas! What to do! We would like to be of a common mind, but what does that mean? If you go with the least common denominator, which is what politics does, pretty soon you get a very, very small area in which we can say we are of a common mind, and the area only gets smaller.
I was sitting this morning looking out my window, as I always do. There was Cooke’s Peak in the distance, and the Gambel’s Oaks in the arroyo in front of the house, the bear grass and yuccas punctuate what would otherwise be a rather uniform carpet of yellow-green grass. I know there are rabbits, quail, ants and other critters running around under the line of sight. Each has its own place and work. Each interacts with the others on its own terms. Where is the common mind of creation? The common mind is seen sitting in my office room looking out over it all. Together they compose a common mind. Not any one of them says it all. There is no common denominator save that they are all in the picture together. Sometimes there is conflict, sometimes there is not. It’s all of the Common Mind.
What is the Common Mind in the Church? It is not and never has been a common set of beliefs. It has not and never has been a common liturgical practice. The common mind comes clear when you look at the whole from the balcony and see that faithful people throughout the millennia have sought to follow Christ in their own way, time and place, and in dialog (or not!) with other faithful people. There is conflict, to be sure, but it is just our way of hammering out our differences. What is the common mind of American society today? It is not and has never been a common set of beliefs about what it means to be an American. It is not and never has been a common way of life. The common mind comes when you look across our meager history and trace those threads that recur over and over again: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and the struggle to live into the fulness of those ideals as the vision of them changes from decade to decade. There is conflict, to be sure, but it is just our way of hammering out our differences. The Common Mind is only seen from the balcony of the dance floor.
So how about this piece in the paper? We’ll hammer it out and decide, and we’ll move forward, and the conflict itself will be part of our common mind.
Sitting in silence is hard work. When I do it the stories of life begin to recite themselves in my head and very quickly I realize that I am NOT looking at the trees out my window, or at Cooke’s Peak in the distance. My eyes are turned inward and I am seeing things that are inside my head. I could be anywhere doing that, the bus station, on an airplane, in my office or in a meeting. The point is, anywhere is precisely anywhere because in reality I am nowhere outside my head, and I carry that around with me. I’m not present to anything or anyone but my own internally constructed stories.
We have lots of quail that come into the bird feeder every morning, and I always set out seed before doing my sitting in silence. A quail will jump into sight on the half-wall around the front yard and sit there, fluffed up in the sun. I see it, and then I start to tell stories about it. It came from here or there. Momma kicked him out of the nest because his feet were too cold and he kept putting them in the middle of her back. He’s looking for his little ones who turned this way when he turned that….and I’m not present to anyone but my own internally constructed stories.
I have on my shelf a book titled, The Stories We Live By. (McAdams, 1993.) It is written by a psychologist who has discovered the power of story to heal or cripple our inner life. He accurately and clearly articulates one of the most powerful things the human being can do: construct story. Sitting in silence, what our Buddhist brothers and sisters call “zazen,” cuts deeper. It asks us to stop telling our stories for just a bit. Sitting in silence is hard work—one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do.
But when I cut beneath the stories I discover something wonderful. I am not my story, I am the teller of my story. I can tell the story in many different ways and none of them really captures the essence of who I am or what my life is all about. I am at once simpler than my story and greater than it, for I am the fount from which it springs. By story I create my inner and my outer world with a word, and I can change that world with a word. I am created in the image of God.
There are a LOT of peach pits in my compost pile. They lie among skins and other kitchen scraps as the softer things decompose into plant food. The pits, however, don’t succumb so quickly to the processes of the earth. Next spring they will still be hard and strong. I have thought about collecting them all and putting them in low spots on my driveway as gravel. There are only two things that can break them open: something harder, like a hammer, or the process of life, awakened from within that split the pit along predetermined lines from inside. Then, amid all the death and destruction of the skins and all life will emerge green and promising.
The pit is not unlike our inner beings. We experience our lives as a constellation of social obligations, expectations and behaviors, personal values and politically inspired viewpoints, of personal experiences and what we think of them, and of assumptions about how the world works and why. These are the things that keep society going in a relatively stable and predictable way. What we don’t usually realize is that these things, good in themselves, can become like a shell around something deeper, something incredibly more life-giving. Richard Rohr says that there are only two human experiences with the power to crack the shell open. One is deep love and the other is deep pain, and of course, those two great moments of human living are flip sides of the same coin. The pain comes when our deep love requires something that the constructs of our society and our culture are just not equipped to give—the giving of one’s inner being. It requires somehow for the mystery of life to be sparked deep within in such a way that the shell is cracked along the predetermined lines, and the power of real life emerges to give to the moment what is needed. Life can hammer us and break us, or life can emerge from within and split us open. Amazingly, the choice is ours.
The great women and men of our race have given of that inner life selflessly. None of them was spared death and resurrection. Human life desperately needs, aches for, hopes against hope for even a few great women and men who are brave enough to be split open for the life of the world.