Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ashes to Ashes

A friend forwarded to me a comment about this blog made by a Hospice chaplain in Connecticut. It reads:
“I will read that blog in the future as there is richness in her writings."

This comment comes to me at just the right time.

It’s Ash Wednesday for Christians, the beginning of the reflective season we call Lent. On Ashes day priests smear foreheads and their own with ashes and say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The ashes remind us of our mortality, our dependency on Godde and on other people for our well-being. Humility is being right-sized—not too big or too small. That's what ashes tell us.

Some adults fear that children will fall into panic, start to fear death. Not so. In our parish, kids gather each year for their own time with ashes. They are curious. They want to touch the ashes. They love to know that the ashes are what’s left from the burning of last year’s Palm Sunday palms, the fresh green fronds they snapped and brandished as "swords" or curled up and folded into little palm crosses. I’ve heard statements like, “That’s just what Grampa looked like after he died.” They giggle and it isn’t nervous laughter but rather an oddly joyous explosion of mirth at the very thought of such a reduction: the six-foot plus old man with the ample lap who loved to tell them funny stories is reduced to the size of a small box.

When my father died and his ashes were brought to the church for burial my own children and their cousins wanted to see. They gathered around, peered in jockeying for position. They poked fingers into the blackish-gray softness and wiped it off on a shirt sleeve, their own or someone else’s. “That’s Big G? Wow!” Eyes brightened as they began to remember and talk about their grandfather in life.

That’s the point isn’t it?

I’ve been feeling glum and ash-ish about trying to get my memoir published. Will it die? Is it worth it? Can I afford to self-publish if it comes to that? All my precious, to me, memories are but ashes in the end. Who cares? (I'm not humble; I'm getting too small as if I could fit in the little box.)

Then I click on the email from my friend and read the chaplain's encouraging words. I don't press delete.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Religion/Spirituality/Theology, All Three

“My parents always told me firmly, You’re not spiritual you’re religious!” a friend told me recently. “They would say Stay away from all that fluff.
I laughed. “What a switch.”
“What’s so funny?” she said.
”Well, the word on the street these days seems to be that it’s bad to be religious and good to be spiritual.”
“Oh right,” she said, “And here I am trying to be both. What exactly is the difference anyway?”

I have no idea really, I thought to myself, but I know there isn’t as much difference and divide as people like to think there is.


My own very shorthand definitions of these categories, including theology as part of a mind/body/spirit trio, are:


Religion is Body, flesh, how you act. It derives from the Latin re + ligare and means to bind back or secure. It has to do with practices—what you do with your body (worship, prayers) when you have the courage and humility to admit there is a power greater than just yourself, a spiritual power embedded in all creation. Religion’s “binding” is not like a corset except in power-hungry minds that seek to oppress and control, but more like a ligament as its derivation suggests. It holds you together and also gives you lots of stretch. Religion gives you structure and community. You worship to say thanks. Then you go out and try to act with as compassion as you can.


Spirituality is soul or spirit within, invisible, how you feel knowing there is a spark of divinity within you and all humanity. Spirituality is a bit fluffy, diffuse and breezy like wind. It’s Spirit, the breath of Love that kindles and fuels compassion in the world. It doesn’t matter how you call it as long as you acknowledge its presence. Most of us know when we’re out of sync with our spirituality. You feel like one of those bumper sticker happenings. Spirituality is like a yogic flow. What you feel, think, say and do are in union.


Theology is Mind, how you think about divinity. It’s study of the Holy, coming to terms with your own reasoned and experienced sense of divinity, God. All of us are theologians, even atheists, so maybe we shouldn’t relegate our personal theological thoughts to the closet or the experts.


Expressing and nurturing deep thoughts and feelings is what a religious/spiritual/theological community at its best does.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Trust 2

Yesterday I posted a poetic prayer by Teillhard de Chardin. It is beautiful and wise to me.

Teillhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a French Jesuit, scientist and theologian. As a paleontologist, biologist, philosopher and Christian visionary, Teillhard dedicated his life to the idea that the whole cosmos and everything in it was connected, that one heartbeat drove it all. He envisioned a convergence of heart, not mind, through a global information network.

Not far from what contemporary quantum physics is telling us and what Christian biblical theology has implied and often stated in phrases like “All things are one in Christ.” Or the vision of Godde drawing all things into divinity for ultimate wholeness.

Teillhard was a man of faith so he writes as he prays. To me his way of speaking about trust and patience has turns of phrase that were ahead of his time but right on. For example: Trust in Ourselves and the Slow Work of God. Notice the and, a linking word. The relationship of humanity and divinity is intimately connected—enough to be a partnership. Your earthly life in time evolves by a process of grace and circumstances acting on your own good will. It may take a Very long time to get to where most of us think we want to, or must, be—yesterday.

I envision a dance, a waltz like I did once with my dad. We started out clumsy and stepping all over each other’s feet. He was a fine dancer and I had no ballroom grace. He took the lead. I resisted, my control needs in high gear. He wrapped his strong arm tightly around me. I began at last to get the rhythm; our hearts and our feet moved to one beat. The feeling was a mysterious combination of deep peace and thrill. We were one. And, silly bonus, we won the waltz contest.

That’s spirituality—the graceful moment when it all comes together, you are in harmony with everyone and everything, and you are gratefully surprised. It is, as Teillhard says, as if there is more to it than just your will alone.

Going with the flow is a great idea, but you can’t make it happen, but simply be willing for it to happen when you decide to trust rather than push.

My waltz with Dad didn’t take very long but lots of other things have and do. Teillhard suggests we give God the benefit of our doubt, letting God believe he or she is leading—what I did with Dad, only he really was leading.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Trust 1

Patient Trust in Ourselves and The Slow Work of God

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally,
impatient in everything to reach the end
without delay.
We should like to skip
the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being
on the way to something unknown,
something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
And that it may take a Very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually—
let them grow
let them shape themselves,
without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today
what time (that is to say, grace and
circumstances acting
on your own good will)
will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of
feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

Pierre Teillhard de Chardin

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Where Are the Stars?

Where are the Stars?

I’ve been missing the stars. Each night I scan the winter sky hoping to see just one. Some nights I do but lately the clouds have taken over quite completely, obscuring the night lights.

All this star-gazing isn’t about any interest in astrology, astronomy, the cosmos, or even romance. I just love the feeling I get, something like awe and an odd safety as if there were a cover, to contain and protect, to boundary chaos.

In Genesis this covering is called firmament (in new translations it's dome) No one really knows what a firmament is, but it is set in place by a Creator to distinguish above from below, to separate heavens from earth. Its creator calls it Sky. Somehow we got the idea that God is in the Sky and we are on the earth just waiting to head for the heavens.

But when I see the stars I feel no separation.

The ancients used to navigate by the stars alone, and the Magi followed a star to find a savior in a troubled world. I’ve followed many a star and sometimes gotten off track. Our culture right now is star-struck, paying undue attention to celebrities as if they could save us.

If I were a magus I would follow a star. I’d travel with curious others, wise ones with capacious hearts. I would travel light and stop three, maybe five times a day to look down, to pray. When the journey seemed too hard I’d stop and rest, eat and talk, sit on the earth and let the heavens go.

This is in fact my life—the life of any Christian, any religious, spiritually attuned, good person who, fueled by the soul’s adrenaline, gazes up to stars but follows only what they illuminate below—perhaps a whimpering infant nestled in a dumpster’s trash and needing care.

Just tonight I saw a star—Venus—next to a quarter moon slice. One.