To fall short of the standards which recommend us

For the religious to fall short of the standards [a standard is a type of flag ordinarily used as a type of identification], which recommends them to the world and to be found out is devastating in at least two ways. First, there is that terrible accusation of hypocrite and second, the expected attacks against their faith. Not only is the individual called a ‘fake’ but their long-held belief system is also called into question. The believer or the secularist for that matter who dares to go public with their moral standard is setting himself or herself up for the inevitable failure. In different but also in some very similar ways there is a resistance to both the believer and the non-believer who exists and moves about in the world. Moral excellence belongs to none. We are all works in progress saint and sinner alike. Who then is the perfect one ["as good as it is possible to be"] living and walking amongst us? The only question seems to be whether our transgressions remain secret or are exposed by some ‘accident’ of history; or a betrayal by a friend; or by our own digital footprint.[1] Nowadays, too, there is the added pressure and anxiety on the believer to appear ‘churchlike’ on account of the cynical view and increased scrutiny placed on faith-based communities, particularly by the progressively popular ‘anti-religion’ movements which ironically share demonstrable rudiments with religious fundamentalism.

Quotation: Satsuki Shibuya

Quotation: Satsuki Shibuya

So what to do especially during times when everybody seems to be on the lookout for ‘virtue signalling’? Human beings who are trying to practise some form of goodness within one of these faith-based communities are being more and more hunted out of existence as if some kind of sport. There is a hard choice to be made. Keep testifying to those things we hold of value knowing full well we shall fall short of our standard, or remain silent before an increasingly cynical world and say nothing that we might remain protected from scorn and likely ridicule. Writers for instance of such little and imperfect reflections as this present one are particularly susceptible, for compromises and contradictions knock everyday on their door. So then, it has been more than once that I have questioned myself whether I should stop uploading such entries. But I cannot stop. Even, if only for the entirely selfish reasons of self-therapy. And so the inner turmoil of being “mine own executioner” is the price I pay.

“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt. 6:12)

This anxiety of being ‘caught out’ [whether a religious or not] has the potential to paralyse the sensitive heart, to silence and to instil a sickening fear into the mind. It could leave a fellow human being in ruins as they go about trying to conquer their own private demons. Is it let's say hypocritical, to warn and to speak out on the shattering consequences of addiction if one is in secret fighting against an addiction himself or herself? Who knows more than the compulsive obsessive for example or the addicted of the limitless lure and ‘bloodletting’ of their diseases? Understanding the neuropsychology of addictive disorders is a lot harder than the easier option of a too hasty judgement. Our greatest teachers have been the “wounded healers” of our world who have dared speak when they themselves were near enough to burning.[2] Is he or she to keep silent, lest they be called out and labelled a ‘hypocrite’? It is a question which a large number of us will have to face. Whether and despite our imperfections and deviations from our ideal standards, for we are all broken in one way or another and we are [most of us at least] a walking quilt of patches, to keep on spiritually striving or to allow for the fear of falling short to dowse our spirit and so burying our authentic voice? We all want to appear credible and for our reputations to bear significance, the accusation of hypocrisy fills most of us with a sickening dread. Particularly in present times with that appalling association of ‘brand name’ to identity. It is for the individual to decide, to accept all manner of calumny if need be, or to be a crowd pleaser. “Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident,” writes Michael Josephson in a thought-provoking reflection. For there is little doubt that sooner or later we will hear that demoralising sound of stones crashing into our windows.

“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (Jn. 8:7)

It is a sad but undeniable truth that we fall, and fall ‘short of the mark’ daily. Transgression of one type or the other is our common lot. We also carry a big sack of contradictions which discourages and holds us down. But we should not despair nor disregard the intent of our hearts which point to the nobler side of ourselves. What things are these heart, and soul, and spirit? They are your inner voice [your conscience], and those invisible forces [of nature] which animate you and give you awareness, which differentiate between The Odyssey and the Apocalypse, that is, your consciousness.[3] It is vital we do not betray ourselves by giving up on what our soul whispers to us in the still of the night, when it reveals to us the truth of who we are called to become. Endurance will bring its own restoration. Every path worth taking is strewn with obstacles, but in essence that is what growth is all about: the ‘struggle’. This is the ongoing story behind all of the great odysseys in literature. Think also on the ‘lowly’ caterpillar which despite its unglamorous state continues on its journey to reveal itself one of nature’s most ethereal creatures, the butterfly. In terms of “us” this could be translated into the psychology of human development and the search for meaning.

To have tried our very best, to have remained vulnerable to attack, to struggle and to agonize [from the Gk. contest] over what it means to be a good person [when in truth none can be all good] even if ‘caught out’ for our transgressions, and to try to hold to the standards we have set ourselves right through to the last hours of our life, may well be our hardest and most beautiful work. More useful than any successful poem or grand score of music we might leave behind. It will certainly be our most enduring. It is what we would normally call our legacy. And so do not give up. The essence of life is growth. It is the ongoing process of broadening and heightening. Allow for no one to stop you from striving to reach the highest within you. As for perfection it is one of the great lies, it does not exist in the corruptible flesh, it’s a mythology in the service of the other ‘walking dead’. Pretending, that is being hypocritical, is very different to trying your very best.[4] The secret here is not to call out others by name. Here, as well, this is very different to fighting for justice instead of going after retribution. If we practise “true love” by forgiving “insults” directed at us, Saint Mark the Ascetic (5th cent. AD) encouragingly counsels, we have found a surer way of becoming “free from hypocrisy”.

There remains the real possibility we will continue to fight and struggle against our fetishes and failings and inconsistencies to our last breath, when we would have hoped to have loved more at the end than at the beginning. That is the glory then, even in the face of defeat to never give up on the ‘conquering’. I recollect here the story of a monk who had no intention of staying in his monastery after experiencing the rigours of the monastic life even after a few weeks. Every evening when alone in his cell he would remove his cassock to place it on the hook behind his door with the sincerest intention of leaving his vocation come morning. He went through this routine to the final days before his death, more than sixty years later. So he remained, he conquered. Was he right or wrong in his endurance? That is for him alone to know but his example is not without its merit. Is it worth it then, ‘wasting’ ourselves in the pursuit of our higher ideals? By ‘wasting’ I do not at all mean ‘destroying’ but giving up on those things which would in fact destroy us. Yes, as one of my favourite authors had once replied, it is worth it when it means stretching our human limitations and digging to the depths of our being even past “the darkness”. I am here referencing the much misunderstood Nikos Kazantzakis who was relentlessly driven to understand the purpose of life:

A command rings out within me: “Dig! What do you see?”
“Men and birds, water and stones.”
“Dig deeper! What do you see?”
“Ideas and dreams, fantasies and lightning flashes!”
“Dig deeper! What do you see?”
“I see nothing! A mute Night, as thick as death. It must be death.”
“Dig deeper!”
“Ah! I cannot penetrate the dark partition! I hear voices and weeping. I hear the flutter of wings on the other shore.”

“Don’t weep! Don’t weep! They are not on the other shore. The voices, the weeping, and the wings are your own heart.”[5]

To outwardly identify someone with their lapse, the reasons which we should probably never know, would be one of our cruelest acts. It is a denial of all their other possibilities. So let us practice compassion in its place. It does matter how we treat others. Love is a combination of many motivating qualities, both known and unknown, but it is compassion [to ‘suffer with’], which is its most recognizable expression. When people are crushed for air and the world around them seems to be falling apart their discernment can fracture into a thousand pieces. A man I once knew, a good man and a respected member of his believing community, had in one unthinkable moment lost all but one of his family in an automobile accident. He turned to alcohol for some years in a hopeless effort to numb the pain which could not be numbed. Yet all along he would say that he understood liquor was not the answer and would in his sober hours warn others of its uselessness. He remained accountable to himself. That was enough. So what was he then? Was he a grieving and suffering soul struggling to survive or was he an unrequited drunkard and a fake? So, yes, let us hold off from such quick judgements. Could we even for a minute put ourselves in the shoes of this modern day Job? To what shadowy places would our own desperation take us or has taken us already? He recovered, by the way, the best he could, to be a source of real hope for others. Even to this day his is one of the names which does help to sustain me.

“It is not what you are nor what you have been that God sees with His all-merciful eyes, but what you desire to be.” (The Cloud of Unknowing, anon.)

Do not rush to expose your brother or sister nor to find delight in their humbling. We are all in need of reproof during our times of carelessness but a gentle correction is very different to overlooking the log in your own eye. What if the multiplicity of your own secret transgressions were to be suddenly exposed to the world? I would want for the ground beneath my feet to open fast and to be quickly swallowed up. So let us, then, give the benefit of the doubt to those who struggle yet truly believe in the nobility of the better man or woman, and if they are caught out judge them not by their inglorious fall but rather consider whether they have spread a little more compassion and sunlight into their community. Therefore we should also be very careful of value judgements, that is, judging others based on our own standards and priorities. And let us ask ourselves the following question why is that we do not hold to a similar account the more famous amongst us? We punish the everyday man or woman to the point of persecution, but the celebrity or the powerful we admire and elevate even more when they fall short of those ideals which we would normally consider inviolate. Amazingly, it is as if our idolizing is an inoculation against the charge of hypocrisy against the ‘stars’. If we do not worship the Creator we will worship the created order. We will elevate the corrupt and the decaying material body to a space it cannot survive. We are hurting ourselves and those around us by drinking in the opiate of superficiality, and by lowering our standards we are also selling short the future of our children’s generations. We teach them that success belongs to others and that to them is bequeathed the measure of mediocrity. Because you are wounded, because you have fallen, because you have made a trainload of mistakes, these are not good enough reasons to give up on the person you have been called to become. You are a unique presence in this world “made of star stuff” as Carl Sagan once famously quipped and for the community of believers the very temple of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1Cor. 6:19f). Do not allow for the stone throwers to diminish your self-worth.

To keep trying to be human till your death, this would be a life well lived. This is then, too, what it means to try to be good. Each day is an opportunity to grow deeper into that eternal potential breathed into us from the moment of our creation and to live out in greatly richer expressions the radiance of compassion. Therefore this is the hardest truth, to “die daily” (1Cor. 15:31). This is the geography of the “unseen warfare”. Ultimately, what really matters in this everyday struggle of ours with all of its ups and downs, is that God alone knows and discerns the true intent of “the hearts of all the children of men” (1Kgs 8:39).

“Dear Lord, you know I am not perfect, too often I have been anxious that I would be found out to have fallen short of the mark, scared of being held to account for not being perfect to my word, yet allow for me to be at peace in the knowledge that trying my best will be my chief and most enduring work.”

[1] By transgression here and throughout, I am referring to a personal moral lapse or weakness, and not to any crime which might have to do with a violence inflicted upon another. This is another matter altogether and would require a different and more immediate response.

[2] Henri J. M. Nouwen’s famously insightful reflection on the healer as wounded himself or herself yet in the service of ministering to others has rarely left my side: https://www.amazon.com/Wounded-Healer-Ministry-Contemporary-Society/dp/0385148038

[3] This is a truly huge topic, even when it comes to definitions with many disciplines contributing to our understanding of self and the question of human spirituality, which then naturally spills into the complex connection between the mind and matter. A good start would be with an initial introduction to these subjects from the reliable Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/about.html

[4] Of all places I came across a marvellously discerning article in The Guardian addressing hypocrisy in the modern context [and how we can accuse people wrongly] very useful and certainly worth sharing: https://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2016/nov/17/its-only-wrong-when-you-do-it-the-psychology-of-hypocrisy

[5] https://www.lifemasteryhacker.com/blog/nikos-kazantzakis-on-life-death-and-the-meaning-of-it-all

On the Hidden Dangers of Cynicism

“For better or for worse, I have watched people die in front of me. I see how they are in the end. And they’re not cynical. In the end, they wanna hold somebody’s hand. And that’s real to me.” (Mitch Albom)

Cynicism is an attitude or state of mind which can strike at any time, though it can be more treacherous when it attacks in middle age. Cynicism for a younger generation might be a call to action of some sort, to inspire inward reflection, to instigate political change, and negatively, to espouse anarchy, to become apathetic, or to adopt a scornful way of thinking. For the older person, when it is removed from life experience, it can prove devastating with the passing of the years and with aspirations no longer on their side. In both instances it can lead to ennui, apathy, and despair. What exactly is cynicism then? It is a distrust of people’s motives or the belief that they are generally motivated by self-interest. It has taken on a much nuanced definition since the times of the Ancient Greeks when it was associated with the school of the Cynics [from the Greek kunikos commonly ‘doglike’ or ‘churlish’] characterized for its contempt of ease and pleasure.

For the religious cynicism can be a double temptation, to not only entirely mistrust the social and political infrastructures which surround and support him or her, but also to question the fundamentals of their creed. Revelations and ideals once considered inviolate are now looked upon with a great degree of suspicion if not humour. Disappointment with integral infrastructures and first-hand knowledge of the moral failings of the militant church, only add credence to the cynicism which can threaten the foundations of a life. So what to do when cynicism is no longer a safeguard against naiveté but an ongoing pessimistic disposition? It does help to remember it is part of life and only natural that during certain stages of our growth we will experience a whole range of disappointments or ‘let-downs’ which will hurt. Cynicism and irony during such times could be seen as a defence mechanism or a ‘balm’ to help soften the blow. It is when these attitudes become ongoing states of mind that they grow into hopelessly destructive emotions. We are robbed of interior peace and great lessons of the past are too readily forgotten.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition cynicism is typically considered against the loss of belief (Job 7:14-16) or trying to catch somebody out (Lk 20:20-26). In Buddhism it is often contrasted with equanimity. In the Hindu scriptures cynicism is the source of hatred and anger. In more modern times these expressions can be marvellously summarized in the philosophical words of the American writer and amateur fiddle player Jackson Burnett:

“A thousand years from now nobody is going to know that you or I ever lived. The cynic is right, but lazy. He says ‘You live, you die and nothing you do will ever make a difference.’ But as long as I live, I’m going to be like Beethoven and shake my fist at fate and try to do something for those who live here now and who knows how far into the future that will go. If I accomplish nothing more than making my arm sore, at least I will be satisfied that I have lived.”

Cynicism is especially dangerous for it compels us to lose hope and interest in others. Our heart grows cold and we become overly introspective. To be cynical of someone trying to turn over a new leaf is to be cruel. To dismiss a religion because its followers are less than perfect makes no sense. To patronize a fellow human being because we in some way feel superior to him or her is the height of folly. What is more we risk growing cynical with our very selves which can lead to self-hate. It can damage the spirit which is the animating force behind creativity and love.

So what to do if we are gripped by the negative outcomes of cynicism?

Talk is cheap and ‘easy positivism’ is everywhere accessible. Engagement with the world and giving a helping hand to the ostracized, to help bring about change where change is needed, is not always an easy thing to do. It will very often demand a great deal of sacrifice and on occasion an agonizing re-evaluation of the notion of trust. Cynicism, similarly to ‘bad faith', has at its core an element of self-deception and a refusal to confront alternatives.

Allowing for the benefit of the doubt is to not allow for cynicism to grip our hearts. The encouragement of our neighbour is a great antidote. We are not called by the wisdom literatures of the world to become ‘naive’ to the realities of the human condition nor is it expected of us to abandon sceptical doubt. Unconditional love is to be over and over again forgiving and to continually see the potential which is breathed into the soul of the other. It does not mean to ignore wrongs or turn a blind eye to wickedness. We might also do well to remember how hurtful it was when we ourselves were dismissed and denied the goodwill of our intentions. Social infrastructures as well, might be improved with our considered input and made better through our direct involvement. We will not change the world, but we will surely spread some sunlight and make a real difference to at least a few lives, including our own.

And is that not enough of a good thing and well worth the doing?

“My dear Lord, protect my heart from the hidden dangers of cynicism and allow for me to be a humble yet present doorway for others to pass through. Help me every day to remember, our Father who art in Heaven, that life will not deliver to me all that I want.”

Words of encouragement

“Instruction does much, but encouragement everything.” (J.W. Goethe)

Why is it so difficult to sometimes speak a word of encouragement, to simply say to the other “well done” or “great effort”? Not to engage in flattery or shallow praise, but to genuinely look for the good or the potential. Is that so difficult? How often have we ourselves desired this grace and welcomed it from others, we know how vital and uplifting a few words of encouragement can be. It can save us from becoming disheartened or overwhelmed. We may not realize it now- but that card we sent to congratulate a friend who has just achieved a hard earned success, the email to acknowledge an attachment of a first story, the tweet to publicly say how proud we are of a mate’s local award, the big hug when we are told of that long-awaited promotion- can make an enormous difference to someone’s confidence and desire to keep going. Few things are as beautiful as investing in people and in their dreams. We should not be slow to encourage.

Leo Buscaglia who was inspired to turn toward questions on the meaning of life after the suicide of one of his students has expressed magnificently what most would hold to be true: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Encouragement from en- (“make, put in”) and corage (“courage”) takes on many forms and can be expressed in lots of different ways. Encouraging and supporting the creative efforts of our friends which is one of these expressions should not be underestimated. Picking up an instrument for the first time, writing a haiku poem, taking a sculpture class, learning a new language, going back to college, let us not dismiss these efforts as insignificant or irrelevant to our own story.

So why do we sometimes find it difficult to say “well done”? Is it because we feel threatened in some way? Maybe we reckon given half the chance we could do better? Perhaps we might feel that our neighbour is trying to show us up? Are we angry at the world? Whatever the reason, it does our spirit no good to ignore the cheerful enthusiasm in another’s heart. It is such an awful thing to demoralize another human being. To the extent that we support and encourage our friend or neighbour in their new pursuit, we ourselves enter into that “cheer” and partake of the experience of a fresh endeavour. In saying “great effort” we reaffirm those lessons of old to do with personal growth and the acquisition of understanding. But we are also helping ourselves in another way, to exercise the precious art of listening. It is good to take the focus off ourselves and not to monopolize the conversation.

Encouraging others is an act of love and the practise of compassion. And for the community of believers it is also an expression of faith. “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thess. 5:5).

On being rejected by those we love

St Joseph the comely

St Joseph the comely

“I know that when a door closes, it can feel like all doors are closing. A rejection letter can feel like everyone will reject us. But a closed door leads to clarity. It’s really an arrow. Because we cannot go through that door, we will go somewhere else. That somewhere else is your true life.” (Tama J. Kieves)

How good it would be if we were loved by everybody and that everybody we met did see the best in us. But would it really? And would it make us wiser or stronger? Nothing hurts more than to be rejected by someone we love. Nothing hurts more than to have people we treasure turn away from us. This might come in the form of a sudden stop in communication or in other more hostile ways. The grief which is felt can be inexpressible. It is altogether different when we are treated as lowly by those we do not know very well. But it too can hurt, yet it is not the same. There are of course, the extreme and very hard cases, when a parent walks away from a child, or a formerly devoted spouse walks away from their partner. Then there are those great friendships where years have been given over to them and which have been sustained with much grace and plenty of love. The old and trusted friend withdraws his or her hand to walk away. How do we respond? To say that they were not “true” loves or “real” friends in the first place, does little to soften the pain. What can we do?

There are various ways we can come to grips with this awful happening, for we are each gifted with unique experiences and charisms. And it is upon these that we must call upon during such times that we may not become entirely disconsolate. The rejection from a loved one can give validation to our most hidden insecurities and fears. It is the cruellest and most dangerous of all the rejections. Sensitive and tender hearts have often responded too quickly, with catastrophic results. To such difficult questions, where grief and mental torment are involved, there are no easy answers. The confrontation is real and terrible and hurts the bones. Often there are additional issues of perceived shame or guilt. Our identities seem to be taken away from us. Trust is also lost. Our beliefs are shaken to the core.

Though every situation is different, we all share in the human condition and of having some idea of how the “other” might feel during shared experiences, whether physical or mental. If you tell me you thirst, I have understanding. If you tell me your head hurts, I can understand that too. If you tell me you grieve because of a great loss in your life, I also have some comprehension. Though in each case it can only be by degrees, for the experiences and our reflective natures, still remain unique. But there is common ground and it is from here, this solid and proven place, we can be saved and strengthened. The great lessons are not too far away, if only we should endure and search and never, ever lose hope.

There is a higher purpose or reason behind every great love and every heartbreaking betrayal, and both come with their hidden gifts and powerful graces. We would all much prefer the “great love”. But let us also not recoil from the heartbreak. It is good that we persevere and do strong battle knowing that it is only through the fire that steel is hardened. It is first made soft and malleable, to be brought to the ideal place known only to that element, where its properties are encouraged to their full potential. It is through these excruciating losses, which will often enough break an unhealthy cycle of co-dependency, that we can gain profound insights into life. That is, a less cloudy revelation as to the ultimate purpose of our existence; a deeper understanding of the complexities and contradictions of human nature; a more “nuclear” vision to love and forgiveness; another chance at becoming the men and women we were meant to become; the realization of our strength and power of our spirit. The all-important lesson, too, that bitterness and animosity are an enormous waste of time and a loss of valuable energy. “When you have been insulted, cursed, or persecuted by someone,” writes Saint Mark the Ascetic, “do not think of what has happened to you, but of what will come from it, and you will see that your insulter has become the cause of many benefits to you, not only in this age, but in that which is to come.”

These are ways which bring us closer to the sacred, to those things which our collective religious experience has associated with the divine.

Maybe we have given all we can to the “other”. Perhaps it is now time for them to move on, to explore other horizons vital to the unfolding of their own story. Maybe we have been one of those beautiful little tiles of a greater mosaic, little in the bigger scheme of things but enormously crucial. Maybe we have nothing more to give and we have done our job.  We should avoid any thought which might now try to talk us into believing that these people are wicked when only yesterday they were righteous. Of course, all this implies the equality to the relationship, for when an adult hurts or walks away from a child it will call for a different response and a different type of resilience. And yet we know from those who have experienced this dreadful hurt, that this too can be overcome and conquered. Here we can find our peace and turn our pain into a priceless jewel. And though there will be times when the recollection will still hurt and yes, even bludgeon us during the night, it is important to remember: this too, it will pass.

“He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps. 147:3).

Other doors will open. One of the secrets is to wait, to not force these doors, to allow and to give time for providence to work.

In the Old Testament Joseph was betrayed and sold into slavery by his brothers (Gen. 37:18-36). What was worse, they had even thought about killing him. “When Joseph’s brothers saw him coming, they recognized him in the distance. As he approached, they made plans to kill him.” Joseph both endured and he forgave, to rise up to become the second most powerful man in all of Egypt, next to the Pharaoh.

“Dear Father do not allow for me to crumble and break should I ever be rejected by a loved one, do not let for my heart to grow cold that I might not forget that there was much beauty and joy in there too, amidst the sorrow. I want to remember that I was an important part of another’s unfolding story and that my own is not yet over.”

On Sponsorship of the World

“Choose not then to cleave to this aged world, and to be unwilling to grow young in Christ” (Augustine of Hippo).

Heartlight, Inc (2004)

Heartlight, Inc (2004)

My Lord do not allow for me to become ensnared by the sponsorship of the world which is at enmity with You (1 Jn. 2:15), to go after the commendation of men who have set their ways against You (Ps. 25). I know how tough and painful this demanding act of renunciation can be, it wars against both the spirit and the flesh (1 Jn. 2:16). Strengthen me and allow for the Holy Ghost to inspire me to “not be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2), to fight against this temptation which is ever before me, to forswear earthly prizes and approvals (1 Cor. 1:27). I fall often, but help me to see, my God, that this is a source of great turmoil and of grave danger to my heart (Rom 8:5). For I was created and shaped to serve You alone, I was commanded by Your word to bow down to no one save for You (Deut. 5:7). I cannot have many masters for then I become a “house divided” and will not stand (Matt. 12:25). The more I campaign after earthly praise, the more I will stray from the commendation of Heaven and look for the approval of those around me (Lk. 16:15). I have a choice, the decaying wreaths and short-lived glory of this world which is “passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31), or the incorruptible “crown of life” of Your eternal kingdom (Rev. 2:10). It is difficult to be sure, for I am mocked and scorned, but once I begin upon this consecrated road, establishing myself securely in Your ways, “grace” and the “gift of righteousness” will follow and abound (Rom. 5:17).

Dear Lord, renew my mind, even if this might mean the realization of my most improbable prayers and the putting on of heavy armour.

Memory of Death

“Let the memory of death sleep and awake with you” (Saint John of Sinai).

Francisco de Zurbáran  St Francis  (c. 1660)

Francisco de Zurbáran St Francis (c. 1660)

We would do almost anything to push the actuality of our death further into the distance, to that place where ‘bad’ things do not happen. We will not die, death is for others, we tell ourselves. The noise and distraction we introduce into our lives makes it difficult to reflect, to go into the heart. And nowadays, too, the ‘spectacle’ via our connection to the electronic ether dulls us to the reality of our mortality even further. To paraphrase a spiritual writer, “It [death] is always nearer than you think.” We also try to remove traces of death in physical ways as well. We look to do this, for example, by attempting to banish the proofs of decay and death which surround us. We commit the elderly, our Mothers and Fathers (the reservoirs of wisdom and of magnificent stories) into exile, and we makeover our faces in futile efforts for eternal youth. Technology is seen as the solution to this dread that our walk upon this earth will one day come to an end. Those who argue we can live ‘forever’ (depending on the definition of existence) place their faith in the ingenuity of human beings. But does not nature itself, the laws of the physical universe, teach us that to all things there is a beginning and an end? Perhaps the key here is that to all things there is “change”.

It is not unnatural or ‘unhealthy’ to reflect upon and to have memory of death. It is one of the common lessons of the great religious traditions and even of our most profound humanist philosophies, to keep in mind that we shall die. It has not meant to go about being sad or morbid or raising the fist to heaven. In the Scriptures our mortality is considered one of the Creator’s providential miracles, that following in the example of Christ’s triumph over death, we will be raised up into new life which will be eternal and no longer subject to disease and corruption (Rev 21:4). The famous funerary text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, is effectively one long reflection on death and why we should prepare for its inevitability with "examination" and "scrutiny". Nothing of this means that death is not ‘real’ or that its pain and horror should not touch us. It is in fact, precisely on account of its dreadfulness and inescapability that we should reflect upon it, and make it a daily exercise to confront and indeed to befriend it. So why should we have memory of death?

Whatever our goals or successes in life, it is the shadow of death which ultimately hangs over everything. For both ourselves and all we create, however beautiful or profound, will one day vanish. Great men and women have no immunity over mortality, and great civilizations have gone and are lost forever. And yet death need not be that awful and terrible ogre that we reckon it to be. What is common to those belonging to believing communities who hold to an afterlife but also for those who do not (yet who have reflected profoundly on their own passing), is the ultimate meaning of life. Our response to death in many ways determines how we understand and go through life. It defines the sanctity and purpose of our life goals, behaviour, and reactions to obstacles. And yes, our comprehension of transgression and sin. More directly, reflecting on our temporality gives meaning to even the simplest actions and fills them with a deeper significance. Though it is not possible for many of us who live in the ‘hustle and bustle’ of the city, we still can experience something of what the spiritual masters have long understood and have attempted to put into daily practice: the recognition our lives are fleeting presences, “Man is like a mere breath; His days are like a passing shadow” (Ps 144:4). For some of these spiritual masters every breath is precious, the very air we inhale and exhale. Earthly possessions and attainments are understood as temporal and illusory as the hours themselves which turn into years and then into centuries. And so paradoxically it is here, in this very fragility of our existence that our uniqueness and significance is to be discovered.

To rise up in the morning and make every effort to live that day as if it may be our last, is one of the mysteries to a rich and fulfilling life. All things are imbued with a more vibrant colour, the song of the Olive-backed Thrush is even sweeter, the rain upon the flesh and the water of the ocean about the feet inspire gratitude, great music and art and literature penetrate our spirits in new and unusual ways. We strive to perform turns of charity in secret. More importantly, we love almost to the point of a sweet and unbearable pain and we forgive with an ease of spirit, each and every contact with a fellow sojourner can be an encounter of consequence. My children and wife too, I see them in a different light. This does not make us dumb or unresponsive to the horrors which are unleashed about us daily, violence and poverty and disease. We find that we become more quickly compassionate and responsive because we have come to understand life is indeed rightly precious. Whether here, in this place, or before the judgement seat of God, there will be accountability for our deeds and actions. Saint Gregory the Theologian echoes the greatest philosopher of all time, Plato, when he counsels that the present life should be a “meditation upon death.”

And so when it is time for us to leave we hope for our acts, big or small, to have been positive and worthwhile. We pray that our contribution and legacy would have inspired and given aspiration to others. All this and more on account of our learning how to die, as did Saint Paul who “die[d] daily” (1Cor 15:31). Ultimately, this is true memory of death. If I was to die today  am I close or near enough to the man or woman I was meant to be.

“Dear Lord, grant me the priceless gift of the memory of death, allow for me to reflect daily on my mortality that I might discover the hidden wonders which surround me. Permit for my heart to rejoice in the everyday miracles of the small but beautiful things, and for my mind to comprehend that all things touch upon the eternal, that nothing is insignificant. Oh, how I pray, for that knowledge which goes beyond the physical eyes to reveal that in every day there is a lifecycle to be lived.” 

Not Tonight My Heart

“Hope is some extraordinary spiritual grace that God gives us to control our fears, not to oust them” (Vincent McNabb).

Marleen De Waele-De Bock's  Sadness  (2012)

Marleen De Waele-De Bock's Sadness (2012)

Not tonight my heart, this is not the night. If you should move your hand to extinguish the light, this light, it will all be finished, there will be no turning back. This was not how your life upon this earth was meant to end. What has brought you here, to this darkest of places. Who has robbed you of hope? Who has stolen your dreams? And who has sought to diminish your worth? Stay with me for a while. Let us keep each other company, at least until the morning hours. We need not talk, a few words might be all we need, stay with me, at least until the morning hours. If it grows cold, if it gets too dark, I am here, with you. What are you thinking? That no one understands? That people, even those you love, have stopped listening? I know it is what you are thinking. I know. It is frightening to feel completely alone. Yes, it hurts, in places too deep for names. Nameless places, there is no room for alphabets here, only sighs, and moans, and groans. Not even tears they were spent long ago. I know. Your thoughts are real, like a broken bone, but they are not you. Tonight especially you must distinguish between these thoughts, and your will to live. It is difficult to breathe, even to breathe, that too I understand. If only this pain would go away, if it would stop, at last. Your suffering has become unbearable, I can see this, any moment it can break you, break you into a thousand pieces. Is your agony greater now than it was an hour ago? You are still here, you see, all things are possible. I do not ask of you to take a leap of faith into the limitless abyss, but to be still and to incline your ear, listen, sometimes you need to say good-bye to the old self, and it can only happen on nights like these. On nights like these when you are tested, when you are brought to the scorching edge, to be forged, and to be made stronger. Do not allow for despair to swathe its binding around your eyes. Not tonight my heart, this is not the night. Understand pain for what it is; an invaluable helper to keep your spirit awake and alert that you might respond both to the light and to the fire of the Sun. Your fight is not with your pain, but it is a battle against your suffering. Pain is your hurting, but it is your suffering, it is this, which will give you meaning.

And so ask yourself, this is not the time for half-truths and excuses, and so ask yourself, what has brought you here, to this valley of the shadow of death? Let go of things and places and people which are pulling at your soul, allow yourself the joy and lightness of heart which can only come with the great abandonment. Release your ego, it is weighing you down. Just for these next few minutes, allow for yourself to see through those swathes which are binding your eyes, just for these next few minutes. I will let you in on a simple secret, known to angels and anchorites of old, what is unspeakable can yet be lived. Let this suffering be your way to a deeper understanding of who you are, and who you are called to become. Tonight this could be that place of your greatest and most important discovery, here in this bloody battlefield, you are given your second chance. I know you have had this revelation of the ‘other self’ in the past. It is you, it really is you, do not be afraid of the splendor. “So do not fear, for I am with you.” (Is. 41:10) Hope cannot be taken away, it can only be surrendered. Dreams cannot be stolen, they can only be forgotten. Worth cannot be diminished, it is forever a measure of your dignity as a child of God. Your wounds, these great big wounds, which you think are beyond any possible healing let them become windows, dazzling openings to Love and Light. Become the refuge and the source of belief to others. You will have the most to teach.

Do not feel guilty it is all right to sometimes feel like this, for your soul to ask of you to nourish it with new meaning and content, it is shedding old skin. It refuses to become stone. It is good that you can still feel, even down to these very depths of your anguish, this is your proof, you believe in something. Hold tight onto this grace. Is it your own voice you are hearing? Wonderful, this is how the new day begins. Things will be much clearer, you will not have all the answers, but you will be closer to the reasons. You will have drawn nearer to your purpose determined even before the foundation of the brightest star. And so not tonight, this is not the night, let not your trembling hand turn to extinguish the light. I am here, with you. 

On the wickedness of typecasting

"And Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see" (John 1:46).

Gioacchino Assereto  Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery

Gioacchino Assereto Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery

Has there ever been a terrible wickedness where typecasting has not been involved? Is not typecasting a precursor to all forms of prejudice? Genocides and persecutions and other atrocities are they not founded in the typecasting of the other? Still closer to home, bullying and the mistreatment of our neighbours are they too not the result of typecasting. What does this word mean which we have come to chiefly connect with actors who have become identified with a particular role. To typecast means “to identify as belonging to a certain group.” It is as dangerous and can be as entirely misleading as is the practice of data mining to build a picture of an individual. It is no accident that great teachers do not typecast their students. The surest way to keep a bad habit or behaviour alive in a student is to ‘typecast’ him or her as lazy, or incompetent, or as obstinate. That is, to create the mistaken and horrible idea in their minds that they are without any value and so convincing them that there is “no way out.”

We can also unconsciously (and sometimes not so accidentally) typecast our partners and children or even our best friends. This can only serve to diminish the spirit of the other, and to limit their creativity and inspiration. Ultimately, and worst of all, it is to deny to a creature of God their real worth and true potential. In some instances the typecasting of individuals has led to the infliction of unbearable pain and resignation from all pleasurable endeavours of life, even to the extent of self-harm. To contrast, in the Gospel there are numerous instances each one more striking than the next, where Jesus Christ gives the abundance of hope and releases a dynamic force in the lives of both the sick and the marginalized. Many are familiar with the famous account of “the woman taken in adultery” (Jn. 8:1-11). There is a confrontation between the Nazarene and the crowd who want the woman to be stoned. The crowd is shamed by Jesus and quickly disperses, he does not typecast the woman and so she lives. He does not identify the hapless creature to her transgression. He sees into the future and discerns her undisclosed potential. Yet he does not patronize her, the bar is set high and there is something to aim for: "go, and sin no more”.

By our own attitudes and biases we can force those near us to remain in a deadly rut. We can convince them that they are not capable of anything greater than their current state or that they are slaves to their weaknesses or addictions. On the universal scale tyrants and dictators have typecast entire races of people based on colour and creed in their demonic bid to either obliterate or to control generations of men and women. Typecasting has also contributed to crimes of inequality and to a whole range of discrimination. In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha preached against ‘typecasting’ when he spoke against the caste system, an unjust social structure already established in his time.

“Dear Lord, help me to not typecast my brother or sister, to not be a stumbling block to a soul striving to reach its potential. Let me be a way forward for those under my charge or care. Allow for me to be that person where another might see what wonderful possibilities have yet to be realized… that I too might by Your grace discern my own capacities during those times when I also might be typecast.” 

Humility

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

Ford Madox Brown's  Jesus Washing Peter's Feet  (1876) 

Ford Madox Brown's Jesus Washing Peter's Feet (1876) 

Few have been able to write deeply on humility, and of these authors only a handful are widely known. The real witnesses to this special grace have invariably been those who have lived by its fruits. So important and fundamental a virtue it is, that all of the great religions understand it as a necessary condition for the acquisition of wisdom and enlightenment. A virtue is something more than a good quality. It is a call to transformation. Many of us are ruled not so much by God or ‘disbelief’ but our pride. And yet, once we understand this actuality in our lives and are able to define it, we can use it to help us grow in the spirit. If we should look honestly into our heart we will find even before we open our mouths to speak, the initial action to be inspired by pride, either in the asserting or refuting of a statement. These are not negative responses in themselves, not always, but typically they will be made with the intent to establish our own credibility or to diminish that of another.

Humility, it is said by those who have studied this royal path, would prefer to silence or to surrender the ego, to throw the light onto the other who is standing opposite. Sometimes it might mean to accept calumny for a season or to suffer an injustice and to respond with charity rather than vengeance. More often than not we will have saved our soul from distress and allowed for the truth to reveal itself in other more meaningful ways. Humility is not a sign of weakness, or giving up on the fight, or hiding one’s talents under the bushel. It is a quiet but powerful statement of a person living through an unshakeable peace, someone that has knowledge of their potential. It also means to be acutely aware of one’s own defects and failings, to be constantly mindful of the log in the eye. The etymology of this beautiful word ordinarily connected to the Latin humilitas for “grounded” or “from the earth” can also be traced to the Old French umelite which can also mean “sweetness”.

So why have I published this piece? Am I not skirting with a terrible danger? Particularly since humility has never been one of my strengths. But I want to get a clearer picture of my mortal enemy- the exalting of the self... so that I could become more familiar with its approach. To discern it when like that clade of lizards which change colour, it might not in every single instance get around me. In the Christian scriptures there is no greater revelation as to the awesomeness and potential of the practice of humility than the lesson of the ‘kenosis’ when Christ emptied himself of his divine glory: “[b]ut made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7). And so there is a bodily labour to humility as well, it is not just talk. Love and humility are co-existent, uniquely powerful as forces of change, and at their most genuine, indistinguishable one from the other.