Last Saturday night I watched in amazement at a bunch of High School and College age kids put on a stellar stage performance of Westside Story. They did so well that after the show I told one of the players in Spanish that I thought they had done a fine job and she didn’t understand me—her accented English in the play was that convincing.
This play was originally a Broadway musical first staged in 1957, but with a slight change of actors, the story is a truly ancient oneThe story goes back further. The original Broadway musical was based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, first played in the late 16th century, who got it from other work several decades earlier. The similar story of Tristan And Isolde, as celtic legend, dates back another 4 centuries. Cleopatra and Mark Anthony take us back almost another millennium. In ancient Greek story we find the story of Hypermnestra and Lynceus, to name just one. Forbidden love across the divides of human society have challenged our sense of who belongs and who does not from the very beginning.
If it is the story of the ages it is our story now. Instead of Puerto Ricans and Anglos in Manhattan, it the documented vs. the undocumented. The cover of Time Magazine last year that posed the question, “Who gets to be American?” also names it. The unresolved tension between the territoriality of the gangs and the song, A Time for Us,
captures the divide that has split American society down to the very definitions of who we see ourselves to be. (“We’ll find a new way of living, we’ll find a way of forgiving…”)
On another level, however, the tension IS resolved. The implied or explicit message of this great human story is that, like it or not, love transcends human divisions, even death itself. Teilhard de Chardin rightly observes that love is what draws all things together. Therefore, love will always challenge boundaries not set by love itself. In Christian theology this is expressed in the Incarnation, where God, in becoming human, reveals the great truth that God is ultimately the source and substance of ALL being, and can be found at the core of everything that exists.
If love is going to win in the end, whether we like it or not, how many people must die, and how much injustice are we willing to embrace before we realize the futility of our tribalism?
The heron was out, standing like a brown clod of earth beside the drainage ditch. His long neck was coiled on his shoulders like a feathered snake. I think his beak was still stuck under his wing-feathers–he seemed to be sleeping in. It was surprising to see him out in the open. After all, it was 16° outside. He could have been huddled in some weeds somewhere to get out of the wind–but then, feathers are awfully good insulators.
Maybe he knows as well as the weather-guessers on TV that it will climb above freezing today and he will get a chance to get something to eat. When the snow begins to fly tonight he might fly out to the Sound like the swans flying overhead. Sea water freezes at about 28° and it was colder than that, but then, the movement of wind and waves keeps things open. Only the heron knows what the heron knows.
Only I know what I know. Whether it’s “wrong” or not depends on a whole bunch of things, but ultimately the phenomenon of my own lived experience is the ground of what I “know.” My story is my story. It may be a story that shoots me in the foot, or teaches me wisdom and compassion, but it is my story, and only I can change it–if I want to badly enough.
There are things I know that I can’t put into words. Even the laser-words of poetry fail at a certain threshold of the soul. Cast into the inner darkness, one can as quickly rise to sainthood as fall into the demonic if one does not have something to hang on to. That something is the community–those who also know what they know deep inside, and somehow try to share it, as inadequate as it is. Attempts become hints on which the companion on the way can gestalt a similar story, close enough for checks and balances, close enough for health, for the growth of wisdom and compassion. This is the essence of a spiritual community, a worshiping community.
In the final analysis, it’s not so much that I know what I know, but, knowing what I know, I know that we know what we know.
This morning my truck informed me that it was 12° outside. I figured it was chilly from the cold mist that clung to the ground, and I had the presence of mind to start the truck early before I had to go anywhere. The fields are white with the weekend’s snow. The swans have gone somewhere else–probably to the Skagit River or out to Puget Sound where wind and currents will have kept water open. I wondered what the homeless experienced last night.
I suppose cold and hot have been metaphors for spiritual conditions since humanity first began trying to describe the inner life. Cold is often associated with darkness, since the sun usually heats things up. The divine presence is often described as light, fire and heat. The metaphors are not perfect, of course. Hell is supposed to be a place of fire. Darkness can be soothing. In the Christian tradition, even the cold of death and the darkness of the tomb are merely the precursors to resurrection. Cold is what you make it. The specific metaphor that supplies your life story with content will dictate your response to it.
It is not all relative, however. Physical cold can kill, and spiritual stories that are not grounded can kill. There are parameters to human well-being. The cold air drives us to bundle up, and the guidance of the great spiritual traditions of humanity urge us to guard against the pitfalls of incipient self-worship.
Like everything else, 12° has the potential of getting us to dive deeply into life where we learn wisdom and compassion.
The Anglican Bishop of Western Mexico just posted a powerful video on the Latino/Hispanic Ministries of the Episcopal Church Website. It documents the closing of the 4th Brigade for Finding Hidden Graves. Mothers, brothers, sisters, children and fathers have been involved in finding some closure to the disappearances that have been happening. It’s edgy work. The people responsible for the hidden graves have already proven their capacity for brutality.
Among those at the event were Episcopal and Roman Catholic clergy along with Methodist and other denominations. There were some who practice no faith. Joined together by their common humanity in the face of such inhumanity, they have let their collective pain teach them wisdom. They are seeking merely for closure and justice. They have no political or religious agendas, just moral, spiritual, and ultimately, and human ones. I salute their wisdom, insight and daring.
Personally, I find the presence of faith communities hugely satisfying. Faith practice should bring us toward our best humanity, not our worst. We should join hands with anyone and everyone whose goal finds this common footing.
In my Christian tradition the inspiration comes from our understanding of Jesus as the recapitulation of Adam, the second try that got it right. Yes, they killed him for it. They kill a lot of people. But like the Jesus movement, the people in this video are finding meaning in it. As a Christian I call that meaning, “resurrection.”
I didn’t realize it when I moved to the Pacific Northwest, but it snows here. It can snow a lot! Since I got here the temps have been in the high 30’s to the low 50’s and that’s what I figured winter was, this close to the ocean. I forgot that we’re quite a bit closer to the North Pole than the Equator. The high today is supposed to be 34° and the snow is supposed to have stopped by now (10 a.m.) but it’s still coming down. One of these days I’m going to go out to Puget Sound in a snowstorm and stand on the beach, catching snowflakes on my tongue. This area is full of surprises. I generally like surprises. They remind me that there are other things going on in the world that don’t have to do with my little center. I am part of something bigger. That is a comforting thought.
One of the essential human spiritual questions is, “How big is that Something?” If in our explorations we reached the end of that Something, then we would not get any more surprises, but we do. Apparently, we have not yet plumbed the depths, which would suggest that all the pretensions of human society, all the ideologies and theories and constructs and assumptions we create for ourselves, all our models of the universe and our opinions of our neighbor’s care of his or her lawn, all must be taken with liberal quantities of sodium chloride, even, and especially, our own. Maybe it is my perversity, but I find that a comforting thought, too.
The prayer of wisdom asks that we never shut ourselves out from surprises.
Living in New Mexico light is special. Photographers flock to the clear desert sunshine. Painters try to paint it unsuccessfully. It has a luminescence about it. In New Mexico the distant mountains ARE purple, in shaded silhouettes.
But in the Pacific North West light is important. The next round of rainy days is building and this morning the clouds were heavy overhead, diffusing the light, but they were not so low that I couldn’t see the edge of Mt. Baker’s skirt on the top of the hill east of town. Snow and light move in a perpetual dance. Light leads and snow follows. When the light is bright, snow shines. When the light is colored, snow glows. When the light is dim, snow goes blue.
People dance with light as well. We praise bright, sunny days and we complain about dark ones. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a reality. We need sunshine. But we also need the grey days. If life were all bright sunshine there would be no roses. Darkness is as much of the dance as light.
Darkness in the spiritual traditions need not be an enemy. It can be the gestation of something new. The choice is our part of the dance.
I almost missed him as I drove to the office yesterday morning. He was huddled in the 27° air down in a drainage ditch, his long grey neck coiled against his shoulders, his 8″ yellow beak motionlessly stabbing the cold air over the water. The sun was due soon, and the skim of ice would melt so he could fish for his breakfast.
The swans were out already, pushing their beaks into the hard dirt for grubs and worms. I wondered if frozen grubs tasted anything like fresh ones. But then, by this time of year all the grubs have faced freezing temps and the swans are still here. Maybe this is as good as it gets for them. Their down jackets allow them to snuggle down in the frozen grass to rest. Apparently the heron’s jacket isn’t quite as padded.
And then a sign of spring. At 10:30 last night a Great Horned Owl began his “who-cooks-for-you” in a tree just outside my door. These birds nest early, and he was already on the prowl for a nest-mate. Temps next week are supposed to dip into the low 20’s, but that didn’t seem to stop his heated calling.
Winter is a promise hidden. Spring is always frozen in the ground, waiting for the turning of the earth. Even as the Midwest gets hit with an Arctic vortex, the seeds and bulbs of the fall will not be frozen out.
My life is always in some way a winter of hidden promise. There are surprises hidden in cold areas that will come to bloom in due season. Wait. Watch. Be still and know that wisdom always takes the long-term perspective. It is Winter.