What Cynthia has initiated is nothing short of remarkable. By crisscrossing this continent (as well as planting seeds all over the world) in a couple of short decades Cynthia has built the foundation of an emergent Wisdom community. But where do we go from here and how might we assist in this process…?
My sense is that at this juncture in time the propagation of Wisdom may best be spread by the further proliferation of Wisdom Practice Circles. These “at home” groups give participants the opportunity to share and deepen Wisdom practice. For some this affords the opportunity to put a toe in the waters of Wisdom in order to see if a Wisdom School might be the next step. For others who have had the experience of attending a Wisdom School, a Wisdom Practice Circle offers a chance to solidify, stabilize, and integrate the learnings that have taken place.
But besides how Wisdom Practice Circles might serve our individual development, they also serve to promote community. They become the gathering lights around which Wisdom students can be drawn and nurtured. Thus, community by community, we are gradually establishing Wisdom outposts that dot the landscape. And these Practices Circles are the means by which our Wisdom community is unfurling.
But who will initiate, organize, and lead these Wisdom Practice Circles? What are the qualifications for leadership? Are there requisite skills that are required?
While there is no certificate that can be earned, there are in fact specific skills and understandings that can equip a person to do this work.
So, who will initiate, organize, and lead these Wisdom Practice Circles? Maybe you will. But perhaps you would like some assistance in readying yourself for this post. This is precisely what our five-day training is designed to do. Along with Lois Barton and Deborah Welsh, we will guide participants through a conceptual and skills-oriented experience that will prepare you to do this work. I am convinced that the work of Wisdom Practice Circles and the training that prepares leaders to hold this post is the next order of business on the Wisdom agenda.
This training will take place at Hallelujah Farm, Chesterfield, NH, April 25 – 29. Details can be found on the Event page on this website. Reflections and comments from previous participants can be found on two Breaking Ground posts: “Seeing With the Eye of the Heart: Participants Reflect on the Wisdom Group Leadership Training” and “Creativity in Community.”
Please consider the possibility of joining us for this important work. For more information and/or to register contact Laura Ruth (firstname.lastname@example.org).
FOR THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH IN SOUTH CAROLINA DIOCESAN CONVENTION
Bill Redfield, looking very professional and galvanized in his being, had to leave the board meeting immediately following the closing, ready to board a plane for South Carolina. We knew he was headed into new territory and had shared a prayer for his work with him before he left. Bill was bringing his ever-deepening understanding of the Wisdom tradition, within years of experience developing “Wisdom of the Body” (in part with Deborah Welsh and Lois Barton for their Wisdom Schools), to The Diocesan Convention of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina. There he was prepared to risk becoming vulnerable in the best sense of the word. Bill was about to meet 250 people who were suffering a ‘devastating’ rent in the fabric of the Diocese with what he was calling “Wisdom of the Body: An Experiential Program of Healing.”
What follows is a teaching; an instructive illustration of Wisdom in action. Over the next few posts, Bill shares the progression he led this particular group through, along with his commentary. Born out of a “challenge (that) seemed to call out for an increase in Being,” these five steps began with Wisdom of Our Physical Bodies, and moved through Wisdom of the Body as the Faithful, Wisdom of the Dying Body, and Wisdom of the Body of the Gathered Faithful—Entering the Great Dance of Life, to conclude with, The Body and Blood of Christ. Bill tracks this process for us, in these five sections, on Breaking Ground, following this introduction.
I encourage you to read these, and if it resonates, notice where in yourself the work of Wisdom takes root, grounds and flowers in your own body and in your own work in the world (whatever the field). Take courage in Bill’s example of the integration of his personal work with what is calling him to his work in the world. We begin with his introduction to you, as reader, followed here by his foreword to the concentrated, experiential, two-hour program he designed to take more than 250 participants to the heart of the potential for healing. And check back in with Breaking Ground for the rest of Bill Redfield’s seven-part series on this experience.
With love, Laura Ruth
Invitation to Wisdom Work
One of the cautions of this Wisdom path that I often remind people of concerns the passage of time—it takes time to integrate the insights we touch in our practice and receive in the teachings.
Because Wisdom has practically nothing in common with a curriculum that can be intellectually learned, its integration usually takes weeks and months, if not years. While sometimes there may be an instantaneous download, for the most part, it is a long, slow fermentation.
Acknowledging that reality:
Is it possible to introduce Wisdom teachings, experiences, and practices to a group—say, a really large group of over two hundred—in a short period of time—say, two hours?
Well, this was the invitation that was issued to me and in the context of an Episcopal diocesan convention. And, as if it had been issued as a distinctive calling, I gave my unqualified “Yes.”
Interested in exactly what happened, and my thinking and planning in anticipation of the challenges…? Read on…
Wisdom of the Body: An Experiential Program of Healing
for the Episcopal Church in South Carolina
The Rev. William C. Redfield
My dear friend and former bishop Skip Adams is serving as the temporary Bishop in South Carolina. Without going into a great deal of gory detail, the diocese there has been decimated by the conservative contingency that split from the Episcopal Church five years ago, taking with them about 50 churches and 20,000 parishioners. Since then, the two sides have been locked in a complicated legal dispute over the name, the leadership, and an estimated $500 million worth of historic church properties that the conservative group claimed in the split.
Skip asked me to come down to present at their diocesan convention that was to be held at Hilton Head. He had already chosen “Wisdom of the Body” as the convention theme, and he had thought specifically of me as the presenter. He expected there to be 250 to 300 people present.
In an extended telephone call a month before the Convention, Skip spelled out some of the details of how the folks in his diocese had been affected by this split. He used words like “devastated” and “traumatized.” It was clear to me right then that my presence there needed to be more than some sort of inspiring little presentation, after which they would simply go on with their convention work. To me it seemed to cry out for a real experiential intervention through which the people might be given the opportunity to change the interior landscape of their own hearts toward healing.
But clearly, it would be more than challenging to orchestrate this. This was a large number of people to work with, not to mention the fact that I had no previous history with them. I would only have two hours. It would also be an unlikely setting to do this or any other kind of experiential work. All things considered, many might would likely be in over their heads and resistant if not downright reactive.
Nevertheless, I felt an undeniable call to this healing work, and I knew in order to really reach people and have any kind of lasting effect, it needed to be powerfully experiential.
When I shared my idea with my colleague Deborah Welsh, she had some serious reservations and tried very reasonably to dissuade me. I told her that this was not a calculated risk; there was nothing calculated about it at all. Instead, I felt irresistibly called to this healing work. Knowing me as she does, Deborah gave up trying to convince me and actually guided me through some very helpful fine-tunings.
A big factor for me was the desire I felt to assist Skip in his ministry in South Carolina. He has been a dear, dear friend for many years, and, while I served in Central New York, he was always a constant support to me—especially as I was “coloring a little bit outside the lines” in my ministry. His love and devotion to his people in South Carolina was very evident, and I wanted dearly to honor that.
I can’t say that I didn’t have some reservations as, in my planning, I continued to consider the risks and possible pitfalls. Nevertheless, that sense of call remained.
Instead of watering down my plan for this experiential work, I considered instead how I could increase the chances for success.
The challenge seemed to call out for an increase in Being. I realized that I could call in powerful prayerful support and energetic assistance. I put out this request to about three or four dozen people—folks from both my Wisdom and Nine Gates communities and some close friends. I asked them to be intentionally present with me in these two hours of my work with the people at the convention. The response I received was overwhelmingly positive and encouraging; they would energetically stand with me. As the time approached, I could feel the growing strength of their support. While the work remained as challenging as ever, I was experiencing a gathering heft and a sharpened intention. Although it sounds incredible to say, I could sense the anxiety transforming itself into anticipation.
Because of some travel complications (like a cancelled flight), I arrived at Hilton Head later than I had planned, but in time for the Friday night Convention Eucharist. I hung on every word of Skip’s sermon that night, trying to literally climb onto the wavelength of his intentionality. Dinner that night with Skip and his wife Bonnie also helped to bring me to a deeper and fuller sense of presence. Although I had physically arrived in Hilton Head some hours before, now I started to feel energetically present in a whole new way. I covered some of the presentation details with the diocesan staff late that night so I would be ready to go first thing in the next morning, right after Morning Prayer. I would be first up.
As I had always done in the parish before Sunday services, I spent extra time in my meditation early the next morning, intentionally working to strengthen and deepen that sense of presence. This, too, was an essential part of my preparation.
As the time arrived, any nervousness had disappeared. Rather than a performer looking out at his audience, when I looked out at the assemblage of people, I saw the pain body of this diocese. I could feel my heart opening to them, and I felt myself extending my energetic arms around them. I was ready.
But before I actually began my presentation, I asked for a point of privilege. I expressed my need to connect with them, even if only fleetingly, before I started. Because we were meeting in a church, albeit a very large one, the seating configuration was in rows (pews). This obviously left a lot to be desired and actually poised a dilemma to some of the pieces of work I had planned. Nevertheless, I walked slowly up and down the aisle and tried to make brief eye contact with everyone present. There is something about engaging others in this way that helps me (and I hoped helped them) to get fully on board.
And, just to give full disclosure to all of the participants at the Convention, I also confessed to having a small and largely invisible army standing with me in prayerful support and energetic assistance in this work. Saying that out loud reminded me of its profound truth and maybe awakened some of those present to this felt reality. I was not alone. Not by a long stretch.
Visit Breaking Ground to read the script that charted my trajectory over the next two hours. Although I didn’t stick to it word for word, I knew I had only a set amount of time, and I wanted to work methodically through its course all the way to its conclusion. Beside the script that I had prepared, I also include the music that I utilized in the background at different points.
You will also find Bill’s commentary on the script and the experience, in the next six postings of “Wisdom of the Body: An Experiential Program of Healing” right here on Breaking Ground.
The Rev. William C. Redfield prepared this material for a presentation at The Diocesan Convention of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, Hilton Head, South Carolina, Saturday, November 11, 2017. You may read more about Bill on the Our Teachers page of this website.
Vancouver forest, and Mary and Jesus from Holy Cross Monastery, photos courtesy of Laura Ruth
In the beautiful expression of our creatively looking forward into our future, my dear friend Mary Ellen Jernigan has eloquently expressed that the present trajectory of Northeast Wisdom was originally set by the heart-vision of Helen Daly. (See her December post: “What’s Next for Northeast Wisdom? A Short History to an Emerging Vision.”) On the occasion of the conclusion of Patricia Speak’s term of Board President and her departure from the Board of Directors, I would like to share a few appreciative reflections of her contribution to our organization. In the process, I would also like to express additional gratitude for the work of some of our other early leaders and contributors.
As Mary Ellen acknowledged, it was the dogged persistence of John Daly, Helen’s husband, who gave Northeast Wisdom the form of an incorporated legal entity. Knowing Helen’s desires, John acted as our founding father. He invited a small band to serve as Board members, and together we slowly tread our way through the legal and organizational challenges before us. John also served as a dedicated Board member for those first couple or three years.
The early work was at times daunting, and it required a keen eye to detail. As our duly elected Board President, Patricia Speak was the perfect person to diligently keep us on track. Her meticulousness was truly amazing. I do not know how we would have gotten through all of the hoops without her leadership. We all owe her a huge debt of gratitude.
But she was not alone. Besides Patricia and John, that first Board was also guided by two other creative and capable servants. Alec Wiggin served as our first Treasurer, and he was responsible for constructing from the ground up a practical fiscal and budgetary foundation that has served the organization well. Alec had a knack of taking complex financial realities and translating them into comprehensible packages that even I could understand. Also, Alec’s wonderful sense of humor carried us over some tight spots along the way.
Jean Smith was another indispensable member of that first Board. Acting as the liaison with the Narthex Foundation and the trust agent, Jean always seemed to have the innate capacity to say just the right thing at the right time. She was our bridge builder, and she used her organizational knowledge and experience to lift us over some turbulent waters.
Both Jean and Alec will be missed as much as Patricia and John. These four original Board members were instrumental in putting Northeast Wisdom on the solid footing it enjoys today.
But there are some other people that warrant commendation as well. Although (very fortunately) he has not yet retired from the Board, Matthew Wright continues to serve as Board Secretary. Matthew has the fastest typing fingers I have ever seen! His diligence has kept the history of our deliberations orderly and coherent—not an easy task.
And finally, I would like to personally thank Roger and Sandy Daly, John’s brother and sister-in-law for their generous hospitality at Hallelujah Farm, the site of many of our Wisdom events. Their work is the embodiment of much of what Northeast Wisdom calls forth.
We are the product of the dedicated work of all of these fine people. Thank you, Patricia, for your inspired leadership. Thank you, John, Alec, Jean, and Matthew for your steadfast work on the Northeast Wisdom Board of Directors. And thank you Roger and Sandy for your faithful hospitality. I express the gratitude of us all.
President, Northeast Wisdom Board of Directors
As this year draws to a close, I am deeply aware of a pervasive sense of gratitude in my heart. I am thankful to have been exposed to Cynthia and the Wisdom teachings. I cannot tell you how profoundly she and these understandings have changed my life (and me!).
But I am no less grateful for the opportunity to serve this emergent Wisdom community in its work in the world. And I am thankful for your support as well—and especially all the generous year-end contributions that will amplify our Wisdom work.
Let us, then, in solidarity continue to stand shoulder to shoulder in our support of this work. Together, even in these challenging times, may we manifest the transforming Light that our world so desperately needs.
Blessings to all for an exciting New Year!
President, Northeast Wisdom Board of Directors
Won’t you join us in expressing your appreciation and gratitude with a manifestation of generosity? We are so grateful!
In case you missed our email that went out yesterday, click on the “Contribute” tab above or here is the link to the joint letter from Bill Redfield and Cynthia Bourgeault.
This is the first in a series of four articles by Bill Redfield about the Wisdom Group Leadership Training offered November 29 ~ December 3, 2017. This practical training in skillful post-holding, including ‘embodying the wealth of Wisdom’s vision’ and developing group skills for greater integration, will take place at Hallelujah Farm in Chesterfield New Hampshire.
Before I begin my pitch, allow me to introduce myself and our team to you. The Wisdom path started for me when I met Cynthia 27 years ago and when I began a practice of Centering Prayer. As an Episcopal priest and clinical social worker, I have long been interested in the intersection of spiritual development and psychological development. I reconnected with Cynthia ten years ago and since then have been a participant in her Advanced Wisdom group. Having spent a chunk of my adult life leading groups of various kinds and teaching group process and group development in several graduate social work and graduate education programs, the upcoming training in leadership skills for Wisdom groups represents for me a confluence of life interests.
I have had the great good fortune of being able to work with two dear friends over the past four years. Sister Lois Barton is an experienced spiritual director and teacher who has lived in community for almost fifty years. A gentle spirit, Lois is a steady loving presence who brings grounding to our team. Lois also has participated in Cynthia’s Advanced Wisdom group. Deborah Welsh is a skilled Dance/Movement and Body/Breath sensing and awareness practitioner and teacher. To this work she brings decades of experience as a therapist and trainer. Deborah is the principle creator of the Wisdom of the Body portion of our Wisdom work. While the three of us also work separately, we have deeply enjoyed our partnership in leading Wisdom Schools over the past several years, and we look forward to working together in this upcoming training. Let me also, then, say a word about that.
Because there are some who, as a result and response to their own training and growth in Wisdom Schools, want to organize and lead Wisdom practice groups in their home communities. To equip these “Wisdom post-holders,” we will be offering a training at Hallelujah Farm in West Chesterfield, NH from Wednesday, November 29 through Sunday, December 3, 2017. The details of this training can be found here.
How wonderful it is to gather with a small group of spiritual seekers to share silence and spiritual practice. Like a lush and verdant oasis in a parched desert, participation in a Wisdom Practice Circle restores the depth of our spiritual life and sustains us on our path. And from the outside it may seem easily done, right? Find a quiet and out of the way room, arrange the chairs in a circle, and have your bell bowl at the ready to signal the beginning and end of periods of silence. If you want to get a little more complicated, you could add a chant or two and/or introduce a little lectio divina.
And while I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from doing just that, I would want to suggest that leadership of a Wisdom Practice Circle is actually more than that. It affords the opportunity to skillfully guide participants to and through a life-changing transformational process. And, yes, while there are certainly contemplative practices that can be taught and shared (and these will be introduced in our training), the most skilled leadership will place these practices in a Wisdom context that will illuminate both their purpose and their implications. This skilled leadership perspective will be, therefore, both vast and deep; leaders will thoroughly understand not just the means of an accumulation of various contemplative practices, but also embody the wealth of Wisdom’s vision; and leaders will have a quiver-full of group skills that will deepen group formation and participation.
This residential experiential learning event will present both the contextual underpinning of the Wisdom practice movement as well as a thorough presentation and practice of specific leadership skills for leading Wisdom circles and practice groups. While we will begin with a suggestion of what human Wisdom development might be in this current age and how the Wisdom movement directly addresses this present human challenge, this training will then move directly into the practical demands and realities of Wisdom group leadership. Not only will we catalogue some of the current expressions of Wisdom groups (e.g., chanting groups, Gospel Thomas groups, book study groups, and, of course, Wisdom Schools), but we will also present, demonstrate, and practice some of the specific group leadership skills that will be demanded in each of these groups. Besides setting forth a unique perspective of the Wisdom post-holder as group leader and delving into some of energetic realities subtly present in this work, this training will also suggest a marriage between Wisdom spirituality and more traditional group dynamics theory.
While many present iterations of Wisdom practice groups are nearly exclusively experiential, eschewing nearly all discourse or conversation, I will be arguing that actually it is the right mix of experience and reflection of that experience that provides the necessary ingredients for the deeper integration of Wisdom into the self-system. Otherwise we encourage the collection of preferred states without building enduring stages. But how do you open the doors to group interaction and conversation without losing that sense of present moment awareness? That’s where skilled leadership comes in…
In the next few writings I will highlight some of the issues that we will be sorting out and practicing in this training. Stay tuned!
For more information about Bill Redfield and Lois Barton please see ‘Our Teachers’ page.
All third party images are public domain courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
We are living in darkness and in the shadow of death. You don’t need a degree in environmental studies, political science, or international relations to know that the world is in a terrible mess. And despite our own efforts to put our own “best foot forward,” our own personal lives aren’t exactly perfect either. These days, insecurity and a profound sense of dread are palpable; they are everywhere around us as well as within us. We may pretend that life goes on as usual, but the smarter part of us knows better. Indeed, the encroaching darkness and the shadow of death threaten to trample our hope and strangle the breath right out of us.
But out of the deep gloom comes a promise, and it is born out of the compassion of our God. It promises that the dawn will break and that we will be delivered to an unimaginable peace and freedom. While the source of this promise is founded in the compassion of our God, the means by which this will be accomplished takes us up short. We are promised that the life of an individual human being—and on this night we say that the birth of a particular baby—will change everything. But can one human life turn such an overwhelming tide?
Now is the time when all of our narrower assumptions and most of our shortsighted expectations are being turned upside down. It’s not that the darkness we have been intuiting is not real or is not dark—it certainly is. It’s not that the present historical/political drama being enacted in our times isn’t profoundly disturbing—it certainly is. It’s just that there is another perspective—one that is larger and longer and deeper—that bursts forth like a shooting star across the night sky.
This other perspective bespeaks light and coherence. Its light pierces the darkness. It does not destroy the darkness, but rather impregnates it with spaciousness. And the coherence takes what is shattered, broken, and fragmented on the surface of things and provides it with a hidden organizing principle that conjoins everything together on an unseen level. It’s as if something from some distant realm is making itself shockingly present—present at a depth in us with which we might be unfamiliar.
Tonight we are celebrating the Incarnation—that special color of the spiritual rainbow of the world’s religions that Christianity paints so beautifully. We have been taught that Incarnation means that God becomes manifest in the life of Jesus, born this night. All Christian churches will tell this familiar story tonight and throughout this season. And we have been taught that all we have to do is to believe that this is true, and eternal life will be ours. I am affirming that that too is right on target. But I am also going to suggest that while that is true, it is true in a different way from how we have been taught. And I am also going to suggest that that is just the beginning.
You see, we are living in two understandings or conceptualizations of time. On the one hand, we mostly assume that our lives are being carried across a predictable straight linear line on which past time flows into the present and will then take us forward into future time. But if we then try to take our traditional understanding of Incarnation and place it within this linear time conceptualization, we will only get the most trivial sense of what this is all about.
If, on the other hand, we could sense that we are also living in a kairos moment—a moment of a whole different quality, depth, and dimension—a moment in which the past and future are saturating the fullness of this present moment—then we might be able to grasp the greater meaning and implications of the Incarnation.
This kairos moment includes the historical moment, but it also takes us beyond it. It sees and acknowledges the present dark times in which we are living, but it knows that, while these are very real, this is not the whole story. So while selfishness, greed, and narcissism are the forces pulling us down toward potential decline, collapse, and maybe even destruction—there is another strength, another power, that is pushing us forward in the Omega direction to which creation has been pointing all along. This direction—although it seems impossible to put into words—has something to do with the fulfillment of wholeness, bringing all the seemingly irreconcilable parts into loving relation with each other.
But here is where the unimaginable power of Incarnation comes in. It informs us that all this is more than a mental idea, a philosophy, or a theology. This deeper force that is moving creation forward has become shockingly manifest in a human being, this Jesus, in this kiaros moment. If you want to get a deeper sense of what this life is all about on its deepest and most meaningful level, get acquainted with this life, this Jesus. His life—lived as a gift to all in his loving gesture of surrender—tells us everything we need to know about what is essential in life and about this Omega direction in which we are heading.
But don’t stop with an historical study of Jesus. You see, because his birth comes in a kairos moment, it is not confined to a past moment 2,000 years ago. Jesus is also born this very night in which the past and the future find their fullness and their completion in this present moment. Therefore, this person Jesus is fully available to us right now—not just in memory, but in presence and in truth as we make ourselves available to him—in prayer, in song, in silence, in loving service to others, and in care for the disenfranchised.
And that, then, delivers us to the implications of the Incarnation as it desires to deeply touch us. As we open our hearts to this love we see in Jesus, something comes alive in our own deepest being. The heart of Jesus and our own hearts, we discover, are not separate—they beat as one. And that light that is born into the world this dark night is the light that we have always carried within us, but it is now ignited in a burst of recognition.
Although technically we can tune into this inner light anytime—sometimes, in order to sense this, we need to stop for a moment and step off our usual treadmill. This is a little like my internist putting his stethoscope to my chest to hear the beating of my heart. My heart certainly (thank God!) had been beating all along, but he just needed to tune into it more intentionally.
And that’s precisely what we do when we gather together on Christmas Eve or when we sit in silence in front of our candle this night. Our liturgy or our silence is our stethoscope, and we intentionally tune into this overwhelming reality before us. For some of us, our own recognition will bring goosebumps; others of us will weep quietly; but each of us in our own way will know that we are looking into the deepest truth of life. And we will know that we and the whole creation—especially the most fragile among and those living in danger—are tenderly bound in the embrace of Love.
Remember the wise men following that dazzling star in that dark Judean night sky? I wonder if they realized that that heavenly starlight matched the light in their own hearts—their hearts of desire that burst aflame when they found life in its most vulnerable and most open form… For what could be more open and vulnerable than a newly born infant…?
What could be more open and vulnerable than…you…?
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The Day after the Presidential Election
After a fitful sleep interrupted by phone calls and texts from worried and distraught friends, I awoke this morning to the grim reality of the day. How could this possibly be? How could we have turned backwards toward hate, racial prejudice, sexism, and xenophobia? So many of us have been actively working toward a culture that could embrace the marginalized. And what about the fate of our earth, our island home? Have we just taken a giant step backward?
For me it was a morning for grief and lamentation. Not surprisingly, I found the Old Testament reading from Joel in the morning office exactly on target:
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.
17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God?”’
It is time for lamenting and pouring ashes over our heads. And so, fittingly, I turned to the Book of Lamentations. Here is a treasure trove for those of us who have reached the end of our rope. The book is filled with despair, with hardly a word of real consolation. And yet, paradoxically, it delivers immense comfort. Maybe some of this has to do with breaking through our denied despair and allowing our grief not only to rise to a level of awareness, but also to find explicit articulation. Maybe too there is some sort of catharsis in exposing the brokenness and strained divisions within our own souls and within our communities.
In the face of catastrophe the Book of Lamentations raises some raw and dangerous questions about God. Why has God allowed this to happen? Does God not even care about the extreme state of our suffering? Can God even see what is taking place here?
And yet, even as we intentionally lower ourselves into this cauldron of hurt, we may sense an affirmation of our humanity. To cry out the truth of our condition returns to us our voice—and, with it, our humanity. And despite our preoccupation with our miserable state, we can sense in this cauldron of despair an alchemical transformation taking place at a level deeper than we can quite get our head around.
While this is not the time or place to take you through a complete exploration of this highly imaginative biblical text, there is one dynamic in the Book of Lamentations that feels relevant and important on this day.
Although, as I say, there is much here in Lamentations that is poured out to Yahweh, Yahweh is silent; God gives no response. And yet, emerging briefly in chapter 3 are some words of real comfort. They seem more to come from a distant memory as from God’s active response to the expressed suffering. Listen to how they arise…
21 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,[b] his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
24 “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
25 The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.
27 It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth,
28 to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it,
29 to put one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope),
30 to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults.
31 For the Lord will not reject forever.
32 Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
33 for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone
If this is not an active and responsive answer from Yahweh, from whence does this hopefulness come?
In every chapter of Lamentations except the last chapter, chapter 5, there are two voices. These voices conflict and often talk past each other, finding no apparent resolution. It’s as if they are yearning for Yahweh’s response, but it never comes.
Let’s just look at the two voices in chapter 1. There is an unidentified narrator and the desolate city personified in the suffering voice of a woman. Speaking first, the narrator seems descriptive of the woman but in a detached kind of way. He makes note of how once so distinguished and great, the city has fallen to this state of pitifulness. He recognizes both the depth and extent of her suffering as well as the reality that there is no one to save or comfort her. But within this recognition there is also a judgment that, because she has brought this suffering on herself, she actually deserves no consolation. And even further, he suggests that because of her great sinfulness, God himself has laid this mantel of suffering on her shoulders.
We can hear here that age-old assumption that our suffering is the result of our own sinfulness. Applying this to our present political reality, you can hear this from the pundits today. Hillary just wasn’t a strong enough candidate to pull this off. Or, she brought this on herself with her penchant for privacy and the whole E-mail fiasco. Or, too many people hated her to begin with. Or, she entered the race with too much baggage. Or others are blamed. Bernie should have bowed out sooner and with more graciousness. Or just plain old Monday morning quarterbacking—Joe Biden could have run a stronger race. And on and on…
There is also some oblique suggestion in the narrator’s shaming accusation of her being ritually unfit that she is either menstrually unclean or has been an adulterer. Relatedly, with the bright light of being the first female Presidential candidate, Hillary has been seen by some as too shrill and by others as too weak. No male candidate has had this kind of contradictory scrutiny.
But then in chapter 1 comes the suffering voice of the city herself. The daughter of Zion speaks not to the narrator but to God. And she asks only that God see her and her present condition. She does not ask for restoration or vindication—only to be seen. She wants God only to see what her enemy has done to her.
And God is silent.
And then in chapter 3, as I have already quoted, emerges a message of hope as if from a distant memory. But rather than a voice from some external source, it seems to be a voice that comes shockingly from deep within. More than wishful thinking or whistling in the dark, this word of hope and healing comes like third force from the opposition of the affirming force of assumed accusation and the denying force of unrestrained grief and lamentation.
On the surface it seems as if in these election results we as a country have taken a huge step backward. There is truth in that accusation. And we must take that seriously. But it is not the last word. For there is another voice that must be expressed. This is a word of grief and lamentation. And this is not just the word that is spoken for those who have worked for change. It is also the word of suffering and pain of all who have been and are currently marginalized in our society—the poor, those people of color, immigrants and refugees, women, those mistreated because of their sexual orientation, those with mental illness, and so many others who suffer alone. In its deepest and fullest expressation this voice of suffering is honored through its articulation.
And what emerges—perhaps as third force—is an evolving wholeness that desires that all parts of the body of the human collective be recognized, honored, and reconciled. It will be the product of all of the forces from which it arises. Thus, it will use every fragment and force—even those we might choose to reject and throw out.
Let us, then, live fully in this moment. Of course we don’t have to like it. We can meet it with lament—and so we should—but we don’t have to erase it. Indeed, we can’t. Let us move forward in this unfurling existence, and let us know our own essential agency in its unfolding. We can touch it all with love and resolve, and not with hate or fear. And let us do this together…
In the previous Ash Wednesday reflection, I suggested that, “Living into our own fullest personhood seems to be contingent upon developing and releasing our talents and abilities into the world.” I also intimated that, while we needn’t be boastful or arrogant about these capacities, neither do we need to be bashful or apologetic about them. And yet we are up against that assumed religious ideal that our eyes should be downcast in self-effacement.
So, if most of us have been raised with the warning that we should not sing our own praises, how can we affirm our God-given talents and skills without resorting to boastfulness? Is there some sort of key or alarm with which we might catch ourselves from toppling over this cliff of arrogance and immodesty?
Unfortunately, we usually try to discern this by observing our external behavior. An inner arrogance, we assume, can be detected by outer boastful behavior. Catch ourselves acting boastfully, we assume, and we can then pull the plug on arrogance. But, really, is that strategy workable or effective? Usually it seems that it is only well after the fact, if ever, that we realize our corrupt faux pas.
Instead of focusing on our behavior, maybe a better direction from which we might work on this issue comes from an inner scanning for fear. Fear? Yes, I am convinced that boastfulness and arrogance are nothing other than one side of the coin of fear whose other side is timidity and faint-heartedness. These are bifurcated responses to the entrapment within a tight and self-limited orbit of the ego’s obsession with self-enhancement and self-protection. Either side of this coin of fear—boastfulness and arrogance on one side or self-deprecation on the other—keeps us from being fully present and from manifesting our skills and talents with power and grace.
Two suggestions of inner work that might address this base fear come to mind. I hope that these might be helpful during this Lenten season. One concentrates our attention on interior emotion, the other on the physical body.
Shockingly, the first is counterintuitive. Instead of distancing or distracting ourselves from the destabilizing discomfort that fear brings, the suggestion here is to befriend this fear. Are you kidding?! No, it can actually be most helpful to develop a curious attitude about this fear. What is its energetic signature? What does it smell like? How do our bodies respond to its signals? A witnessing attitude toward this debilitating emotion means that we aren’t as likely to get completely lost, consumed, and overwhelmed by this fear. We may actually come to be able to differentiate different kinds of fear—that which might be informative and ultimately helpful and that which only serves to tie us in knots and to get in our way.
So when we are even dimly aware of fear’s presence, we can stop and make the intentional effort to face it and to sit with it. Non-judgmentally we can explore it and come to know its various facets. (An even fuller and more elaborate practice along these lines is the Welcoming Practice; it has been fully described by Cynthia Bourgeault and Thomas Keating.)
The other suggestion to deal with fear is to literally and physically stand in a deeper sense of groundedness that reflects our position as a bridge between heaven and earth. When we can stand firmly and unapologetically between heaven and earth, bridging both, we can find our rightful and God-given place in life. In this practice we actually stand intentionally embodying and embracing this deep reality. And as we stand, fully gathered and present, we imagine two triangles—the first whose base goes deep into the earth and whose apex reaches up through our body all the way to the “high heart.” (The high heart is about half-way between the beating heart and the throat.) The second triangle is inverted with its base in the highest and most expansive heavens and its apex reaching down to our physical heart. The intersecting triangles form a diamond in the high center of our chests. The practice, then, is simply to intentionally stand in mindful awareness of these two triangles. When we have an embodied sense of this diamond, it is possible to apprehend that we are a bridge between heaven and earth. And we will know this not as a belief, but as a felt sense.
By assisting us to modify and reduce our fear, these and other related spiritual experiences assist us in finding that sweet spot out of which we may authentically live out our lives—avoiding boastfulness and bragging on one side and self-deprecation on the other. This is about undermining the power that fear has had over us and learning to trust the basic goodness of our lives in order that we might actualize our life purpose.
In a deep and far-reaching discussion in our Gospel of Thomas group last week one of my good friends made a comment that has stuck with me and about which I have given considerable thought. The point he made was as touching as it was revealing of his generous character. He said that he has become more aware of a very subtle tendency on his part to insert into his conversations with others indirect references to things that he is doing that tend to paint him in a positive light. While this is a long, long way from bragging or boasting, he indicated that he now sees that it is unnecessary and that during this season of Lent he intends to try to curtail it.
I believe I know what he meant by this, and I can recognize that tendency in myself as well, and my propensity is not always that indirect! I love sharing with others my excitement of some of the things I am doing as well as some of the ideas that are cooking within me and some of the successes I have been enjoying. But when is this appropriate and when is it over done? Indeed, Lent would seem to be a very good time to look more deeply at this issue. It brings us to the commonly held ideal of humility.
Despite the place of honor in the spiritual life that humility holds, I wonder if there isn’t a potential trap in the cultivation of humility. If a humble attitude is something that is worn on the outside like a suit of clothes, if humility is fostered as a standard to be lived up to, if humility is seen to be an ideal to be actualized—it may be just the one side of a common coin of which boastfulness is the other side. As such both may be manifestations of the cultivation of outer appearances and standards of behavior about which we think we will be judged.
Perhaps humility isn’t really either a value or a behavior that can be directly cultivated. Maybe it is much more the result of moving beyond the gravitational pull of the ego, such that our own self-enhancement is no longer the absolute center of our concerns. In this way, more than a quality to be cultivated, humility is simply the result and byproduct of finding and living in a more expansive orbit—one that considers others as much as it does ourselves.
From the other side, maybe too often we shy away from claiming the gifts and talents we bring into this life—gifts and talents that we can share with others and from which they may greatly benefit. Indeed, living into our own fullest personhood seems to be contingent upon developing and releasing our talents and abilities into the world. And rather than be hidden under a bushel basket, these need to be as celebrated as they are shared. This is about learning to trust the basic goodness of your life and to actualize your life purpose.
The stuff from which we have been created has its source in divine potential and goodness. Our work as full human beings is to cooperate with this divine intention by allowing this inner goodness and potential to unfurl in the form of our unique gifts, talents, and abilities. We ought to hold nothing back. And the fullness of our lives will become most apparent in our unique abilities and our deepest authenticity. And these are to be celebrated.
How? By allowing them to be what they are—without boasting about them and without minimizing them or even hiding them. We can just let them be what they are.
It turns out that my friend’s concern was a sincere expression of his own deepest authenticity. Everyone in the group heard it that way as well. But this whole vast subject gives us some interesting things to ponder in this season of Lent…