Mindfulness and the Weather

One of the helpful insights from my periods of vipassana meditation practice is seeing more clearly the space between a state or condition and our reaction to that state or condition. When we are not mindful, we treat as almost a single moment both our reaction and that which prompted it, a mistake that increases our suffering

Yesterday was the first day of spring. You wouldn’t have been able to tell that from the weather in the Twin Cities; when I drove into the law school, the temperature was 5 degrees, with a forecast of a high of 20 for the day. Condition: a cold day in March.

The condition was what it was. Nothing anyone felt, thought or said was going to change the fact that it was cold in Minneapolis (and still today isn’t exactly what someone might term spring-like).

There are two possibile responses to the condition. Letting oneself get upset, annoyed, depressed, etc. (When I arrived at the law school yesterday, a quick Facebook check displayed a series of agonized comments from friends in the area: Things like “I am going to skin that lying groundhog alive! 5 degrees!?!???” or “6 in Edina this morning. What’s wrong with this picture?” I hear various versions of similar complaints from many people I saw that morning.) When that is the response, the condition itself seems worse, because now one has to face both the condition and the effect of the reaction.

The other possible response is simple awareness. I can let the day be cold without mentally engaging the condition in a way that disturbs my mind.

Being able to do that requires enough mindfulness to see the separate elements of our experiences. If we can see the separate points in the chain of an experience, we can see that we need not follow the chain. So, when I was sitting doing retreat during hot season in Thailand, where the air was thick and the sweat was rolling down my back, I had a choice. I could sit in misery, thinking/feeling, “Oh this heat is so awful. How can I possibly meditate when it is to uncomfortable…” Or I could simply be aware of heat, note the reaction it produces, and let it go, without getting involved in the reaction to it. Which approach I adopted had a tremendous effect on how I experience the heat. Likewise with the cold of “spring” in Minnesota.

I’m not saying I manage this all of the time. I’ve been heard to mutter a complaint now and then about the cold. But when I stay mindful, I can avoid the complaining mind, which dramatically reduces my suffering.


Jesus or Christ

Many people speak almost interchangeably of “Jesus” and “Christ.” It is easy to do, and I sometimes find myself doing it. But there is a danger of confusion when we fail to distinguish between the Jesus of history and the Christ.

I think Richard Rohr, in talking about the “Cosmic Christ,” is someone who does a very good job of explaining that distinction. I was watching a video of his the other day in which he pointed out that Jesus has existed for 2000 years, but Christ has existed for all eternity. (For those concerned he was making that up, he cites the Prologue of John, the hymns at the beginning of Colossians and Ephesians and 1 John 1.) Rohr observed that the Christ was born the moment God decided to show himself in the material world – what some refer to as the big bang. The Cosmic Christ was then revealed in a human person we could see and feel and fall in love with (and from whom we could learn who we are meant to be) – the historical Jesus.

Rohr talks about Jesus as the microcosm and Christ as the macrocosm, and reminds us that the movement from Jesus to Christ is one we need to imitate. In a passage I read adapted from one of Rohr’s lectures, he says:

A lot of us have so fallen in love with the historical Jesus that we worship him as such and stop right there. We never really follow the same full journey that he made, which is the death and resurrection journey—Jesus died and Christ rose.

Unless we make the same movement that Jesus did—from his one single life to his risen and transformed state (John 12:24)—we probably don’t really understand, experientially, what we mean by the Christ—and how we are part of that deal! This is why he said, “Follow me.” The Jesus that you and I participate in and are graced by and redeemed by is the risen Jesus who has become the Christ (Acts 2:36), which is an inclusive statement about all of us and all of creation too. Stay with this startling truth in the days ahead, and it will rearrange your mind and heart, and change the way you read the entire New Testament. Paul understood this to an amazing degree, which is why he almost always talks about “Christ” and hardly ever directly quotes “Jesus.” It is rather shocking once you realize it.

We devote a lot of concern to Jesus, and it is fitting that we do. But I think Rohr is right that we often miss the “Cosmic Christ,” the macrocosm. And it is the macrocosm that is The Way for all of us, whether or not we call ourselves Christians.

Lent Retreat in Daily Living: In the Desert with Jesus – Week 6

Yesterday was the final gathering of participants in the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I’m offering this year at UST Law School on the theme In the Desert with Jesus. (UST is on spring break next week, so there will be no session during Holy Week.)

During the past week, the participants walked with Jesus on his final steps toward Jerusalem – looking at what happened to him and his followers in the weeks leading up to the entry into Jerusalem. They prayed with several episodes from that period, including the Cleansing of the Temple, The Raising of Lazarus, and the Anointing at Bethany.

After sharing the fruits of their prayer experience of the past week, I gave a reflection on the theme of the final week of prayer: Following Jesus from Arrest to Death. I began by talking a little about Peter’s denial of Jesus, an episode that is a fruitful one for us to pray with. I then talked about the reasons it is importnat for us to pray with Jesus in his passion, finally speaking a little about the remainder of the prayer material for the retreat.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 21:41. You can find the daily prayer material for this final week here.

Judging Each Other

In his homily on yesterday’s Gospel, John’s account of the woman caught in adultery, Fr. Dan Griffith spent some time talking about judgment. Not Judgment Day, not God’s judgement of us, but our judgments of each other.

He distinguished between false judgment and authentic judgment. Often we engage in the former. Judgment that arises from pride, from our putting ourself in place of God. Judgment that is motivated less by concern for the other person than with elevating ourselves and minimizing (or demonizing) the other. And it tends to distance us from the object of our judgment, to cast them aside.

Authentic judgement is the product of prayer and arises, not from pride, but out of compassion. It’s is intended for the good of the person being judged. It unites rather thans separates us.

I think we are all guilty of false judgment, some of us more than others. It is, after all, so easy to judge each other. And I think Fr. Dan was correct in saying that our false judgment often is a product of pride; you can almost feel yourself physically separated from whoever it is we are judging when we engage in false judgment.

Fr. Dan’s sermon invites me to pray for humility and to pray, not to avoid judging, but to let my judgments be authentic, always motivated by compassion and the good of the other. I suspect I will fail in that more than I like. (Any other hi “J”s on the Myers-Briggs out there?) But it is a worthy aspiration.

Taken Possession Of, Not Possessing

In today’s second Mass reading, St. Paul writes to the Philippians that he has “been taken possession of by Christ Jesus,” in the next line writing that he does not consider himself “to have taken possession.”

Although in the context of the passage I’m not sure St. Paul intended what I see when I read those two lines, it struck me reading them that the two lines draw an important distinction. That it, that there is an enormous difference between being taken possession of and taking possession.

I think we too often think of ourselves as the possessors, thinking we possess our faith, our beliefs, and even God. We forget that God is bigger than we are, our words and ways of understanding sometimes making God smaller than God is.

If we understand, instead, that we are the possessed – that we have been taken possession of by Christ, that invites us to greater receptivity, and surrender. A stance of allowing Christ to work through us, rather than thinking we need to force something. I don’t mean that we are to be completely passive, but to understand that the initiator is Christ, not us.

I have not taken possession, but am possessed by Christ.

Losing the Faith of our Childhood

In so many areas of our life, we appreciate that children and adults have different capacities for understanding, that children cannot understand things in ways adults can. As we grow, our understanding becomes more nuanced, more sophisticated.

We don’t always have that appreciation when it comes to our faith. As we mature, we have to lose the faith of our childhood and replace it with an adult faith. (I say have to, recognizing that there are some people who neve take this step.)

Part of growing into an adult faith is appreciating that God isn’t always about feeling good, or even feeling reassured.

In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes:

How many people are there in the world of today who have “lost their faith” along with the vain hopes and illusions of their childhood? What they called “faith” was just one among all the other illusions. They placed all their hope in a certain sense of spiritual peace, of comfort, of interior equilibrium, of self-respect. Then when they began to struggle with the real difficulties and burdens of mature life, when they became aware of their own weakness, they lost their peace, they let go of their precious self-respect, and it became impossible for them to “believe.” That is to say it became impossible for them to comfort themselves, to reassure themselves, with the images and concepts they found reassuring in childhood.

Place no hope in the feeling of assurance, of spiritual comfort. You may well have to get along without this. Place no hope in the inspirational preachers of Christian sunshine, who are able to pick you up and set you back on your feet and make you feel good for three or four days-until you fold up and collapse into despair.

We needn’t lose our faith when things get rough. But we do need to find out how to have faith in the midst of a world that is not all sunshine, and that does have moments of despair. That is difficult for children, but it is part of the task of developing a mature faith.

We Cannot Profess Christ Without the Cross

Yesterday, Pope Francis I gave his first papal homily.

The Gospel on which he preached was the passage in Matthew when Jesus asks his disciples first, who people say he is and next, who they say he is. Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Interestingly, what the Pope focused on in his homily was not Peter’s proclamation, but the dialogue that follows (that actually was not part of yesterday’s Gospel. When Jesus tells his disciples that he “must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly…and be killed,” Peter rebukes him, saying no such thing shall ever happen. Peter, in turn, is rebuked by Jesus, who tells his disciples that if they would follow him, they must take up his cross.

And it is that the our new pope focused on. After briefly speaking about the first two readings, he said:

We can walk as much we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ. When one does not walk, one stalls. When one does not built on solid rocks, what happens? What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sandcastles: everything collapses, it is without consistency. When one does not profess Jesus Christ – I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy – “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.

Walking, building-constructing, professing: the thing, however, is not so easy, because in walking, in building, in professing, there are sometimes shake-ups – there are movements that are not part of the path: there are movements that pull us back.

This Gospel continues with a special situation. The same Peter who confessed Jesus Christ, says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. I will follow you, but let us not speak of the Cross. This has nothing to do with it.” He says, “I’ll follow you on other ways, that do not include the Cross.” When we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, and when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly, we are bishops, priests, cardinals, Popes, but not disciples of the Lord.

I think this is a message we need to hear over and over again: To be disciples, we must profess Christ. And, we cannot profess Christ without the cross.

You can read the entirety of the Pope’s homily here.

Either It Means Everything Or It Means Nothing

I had never phrased it exactly that way before, but that’s the way it came out of my mouth in a recent book talk.

We had been talking about relationship with God and finding time to nurture that. I don’t remember the comment or question that preceded it, but I stopped, looked around at the audience and said, “Either it means everything or it means nothing.”

And I think that is an absolutely correct phrasing, that there is no in between. Either our relationship with God is everything, motivating everything about who we are in the world or doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, I can’t see what meaning it has.

God is not one thing among many, one priority on a par with others. Nothing else matters the way our relationship with God does. And that means that we have to make time to nurture the relationship. We can’t be satisfied with a once a week observance or treat God like a “get out of jail free” card to be pulled out in time of need.

We can nurture the relationship in many ways. Individual prayer. Group prayer and worship. Bible and other spiritual reading. Conversation with spiritual friends. But, however we do so, there can’t be anything as (let alone more) important as that.

Either it means everything, or it means nothing.

Forgiveness and Restoration of Dignity

I’ve talked a lot about forgiveness over the last year, both in retreat talks and in blog posts. But the conjoining of two things prompt me to say a few more words on the subject.

My friend Jeanne Bishop recently sat down face to face with David Biro, the man who murdered her sister, her sister’s unborn child and her sister’s husband twenty-three years ago. (At the time, Biro was a juvenile.) In a recent post, Jeanne shared what led to that meeting.

Jeanne had waited years for Biro to admit his guilt and apologize, something he would never do. She writes that it finally struck her that “I had spoken publicly about forgiving him, but I never told him. I never communicated that forgiveness directly to him.” She wrote to him to say she was sorry for that, telling him she had forgiven him. Her apology resulted in him writing her a fifteen page handwritten letter in which he confessed to the murders and apologized for committing them.

As I reread Jeanne’s powerful post, I recalled something Fr. Damien Halligan said in his sermon on the Prodigal Son parable at Mass at St. Ignatius Retreat House this past Sunday. Damien talked about the father’s response when the profligate younger son comes home. Rather than accepting the son’s offer to be as one of his father’s servants, the father calls for a robe to be put on his son’s shoulders, a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. In Damien’s words, the father “restored dignity to the son.” Of all of the words in his sermon, it was those that stayed with me – the father restored dignity to the son.

Often we forgive grudgingly or partially. We mouth words of forgiveness, but still in little ways, withhold something.

In a sense what Jeanne did in writing to Biro was the equivalent of what that father did in the parable of the Prodigal Son: in telling him she forgave him, in apologizing to him for failing to do so before, she restored dignity to David Biro. I suspect (actually I’m fairly confident) that without that restoration of dignity, he would not have been able to confess his guilt and apologize for the wrong he had committed.

Jeanne forgave as God forgives. And her act became gift to her – giving her the confession and apology she longed for. But it was also enormous gift to David Biro, a restoration of dignity that allows for the possibility of real growth on his part.

I am grateful for the model of forgiveness Jeanne has given for me and for all of us.

Lent Retreat in Daily Living: In the Desert with Jesus – Week 5

Yesterday was the fifth gathering of participants in the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I’m offering this year at UST Law School on the theme In the Desert with Jesus.

During the past week, the participants walked with Jesus on his final steps toward Jerusalem, praying with what happened to Jesus and his followers in the weeks leading up to his entry into Jerusalem. Their prayer material included, among others, the Cleansing of the Temple, The Raising of Lazarus, and the Anointing at Bethany.

After participants shared the fruits of that prayer, Chato Hazelbaker offered the reflection on this week’s theme: The Final Hours Before Arrest. Lamentably, I was in the air between New York and Minneapolis at the time, and so didn’t get to hear his talk in real time, which focused on Jesus’ final hours before his arrest – his suffering and prayer in the garden. He also spoke a little about some of the other material participants will pray with this week.

You can access a recording of the talk Chato gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 20:26. You can find the daily prayer material for this week here.