Just Like Other Men: My Kick in the Pants from Thomas Merton

Sometimes, you need a kick in the pants.

And sometimes you get one.

Mine came a few nights ago, thanks to the writings of Thomas Merton.

In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Pharisee famously says, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men”. He even goes so far as to single out the Tax Collector praying in the corner nearby [especially not that guy- he’s the worst].

The problem with this Pharisee isn’t that he’s super religious, or too fastidious about keeping the Mosaic Law. The problem is the focus of his relationship to God: not his own sin and repentance, but to publicize and judge the sins of others, justifying himself by comparison (to people rather than God).  He’s not the only one: politicians do it, social media opinion leaders do it. And I do it, too.

After Bible Study this week, we had a discussion about not judging or shaming others for their failings, and meeting people “where they are” in their spiritual journey. We agreed that it was important to consider someone’s progress in terms of where they started, rather than where they currently are [for example, a person who had to pay his way through school and got average grades did not necessarily “do worse” than someone who made all As, but had everything paid for]. Feeling energized by the discussion, and filled with what I perceived to be righteous indignation, I said to my priest:

I just can’t stand those Bible-thumping, judgmental, Pharisaic religious fundamentalists!

After allowing me to vent for a few more moments,  and acknowledging where my feelings were valid, he calmly replied,”The trick is, we cannot judge the Bible-thumpers either.”

My brain then connected the following dots:

Wait. You mean judging people for being judge-y is still. . .judging them?

Yes it is. While there are many social and religious problems going on in the world and it is right to be concerned about them, my broad categorization of all people who come from a more fundamentalist religious background as judgmental Bible-thumpers, is in fact something a judgmental person would do [especially in light of the fact that I grew up thumping the Bible louder and prouder than most].

I was definitely humbled. Then- at Fr’s suggestion- I read the following passages by Thomas Merton:

If a man has to be pleasing to me, comforting, reassuring, before I can love him, then I cannot truly love him. . .If a man has to be a Jew or a Christian before I can love him, then I cannot love him. If he has to be black or white before I can love him, then I cannot love him. If he has to belong to my political party or social group before I can love him, if he has to wear my kind of uniform, then my love is no longer love because it is not free: it is dictated by something outside my self. It is dominated by an appetite other than love. I love not the person but his classification, and in that event I love him not as a person, but as a thing. I love his label which confirms me in attachment to my own label. But in this case, I do not even love myself. I value myself not for what I am, but for my label, my classification. In this way I remain at the mercy of forces outside myself, and those who seem to me to be neighbors are indeed strangers for I am first of all a stranger to myself. – from Merton’s discussion of “The Good Samaritan”, emphasis added

The sin of classification is not the observing of basic differences, or in the preference of one ideology to another. The problem comes when I use someone’s classification as my reason for loving them (or not), rather than their humanity. This is convenient for me, since using their humanity as a reason to love them would mean I had to love everyone.

So do I choose to love everyone- regardless of how I or the society I live in (or ideology I agree with, or Church I go to) classifies them? Or do I only love people I like?

Okay, okay. I get it, Brother Tom. Kick administered to pants. But Merton wasn’t done dishing out the humble pie. The second thing I read that night was part of the account of his Louisville Vision, an epiphany he had about mankind while walking down a busy street in Louisville, Kentucky:

In Louisville, at the corner of fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation, in a special world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate and holy existence is a dream. Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others. (Merton, March 18, 1956, emphasis added)

What if- instead of the Pharisee’s approach-I took this one. What if this prayer- thank you God that I am just like other men- was in my heart, and realized in my life? What would that prayer look and sound like? And better yet, how might God dare to answer it?

 

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teach your children well

My priest told me recently, “Try to look at each person as your teacher. Figure out what it is you can learn from them.” Boy-oh-boy, between Experience and Other People, there sure are a lot of opportunities for me to learn lately. Of course, that is not all bad [and it’s really ‘not any bad’], since the onslaught of lessons-to-be-learned ensures that I remain a child before G*d.

But the truth is, the climate of my life right now remains a bit difficult for me to accept. There are times, with my perspective, that it seems to look like this:

well, dang

Of course, I have a lot to be thankful for. . . my friends, the love of my family, a thriving city to live in and explore. . . all these things and more are reminders that I haven’t been abandoned. But I still feel unrest.

This morning, my mom and I were talking about a job interview I had this past week, “You’ll get it, if it’s God’s will,” she said. To which I responded, “It would be nice if that would be God’s will, for once.”

My response to my mom’s attempt to help me process a difficult circumstance reminds me of something Flannery O’ Connor once said, “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it. [In that sentiment-and in a few other ways- she and I seem well-matched. ]

I’m not bitter, I promise. It’s just that, as a person used to situations where working hard enough will get you what you’re aiming for, I feel confused having to wait. Of course, the longer you have to wait, the more likely your grapes are to sour. But, unless you wait long enough, you’ll never be able to enjoy their wine.

So, I suppose that-as with anything else-appearing to have scores to learn from Life and its Lessons is what you make it. Or, to follow one cliche with another, it’s all in how you look at it.

So, at the end of the day, I may seem stubborn. I may cry and whine and complain. I may have to sit in the corner for a while. But I am still a Beloved Child, and can at least rest in Grace.

forgive (v.)-

Heaven forbid I use an actual dictionary to determine the most precise meanings of words and concepts when I can consult the boundless bastion of knowledge that is the Internet and get the same things done in a fraction of the time.

Today, my utter laziness and tendency toward the practicality of copy-paste did me a good turn. Here’s what I came up with for “to forgive” and its variants.

  1. Stop blaming
  2. Absolve from payment
  3. Concluding resentment, indignation or anger
  4. Ceasing to demand payment or restitution

You may wonder, what’s with the heavy, thought provoking mini-list? You may be longing for seeming bygone days of glorified complaining or interviews with the super cool.

But everything has a time and place. [And you can rest assured that I will be right back to complaining in no time.]

And today- in my Faith- is the time to forgive people. It’s the Eve of Lent, also known as Forgiveness Sunday.

On this day in the Orthodox Calendar, there is a special service where every single person, from the priest to the smallest child, asks for-and receives in turn-forgiveness from one another. It is a very simple and beautiful exchange. Each person asks for forgiveness; and when asked by the other, each responds “G*d forgives, and I forgive.” In the process, you bow and embrace one another. It is one of the more humbling things anyone can ever do.

It is done on the cusp of Lent to lighten our burden, to clean our slate, to give us a fresh start. And as I was thinking back on it, I realized. “Forgive” is not a noun. It is not a feeling, or a nice notion. It is a verb. It is an active release.

It is a little awkward to have a massive “letting go” or “release”; I felt a little bare emotionally in the aftermath, to be honest. But then I got to thinking, to love is also to act. So, what if, when I put down the burden of offenses and debts, I took up the act of love instead?

Every year, everyone talks about what they’re “giving up” for Lent. And I just realized that, in being called to forgive, I am called to give up the offenses of others, to let go the burden of grudges, bitterness and resentment.

No wonder I feel lighter. [I thought at first it was the obscene amount of sugar in my system from all the cinnamon rolls I ate earlier tonight.] But I don’t want to stand around twiddling my thumbs till Easter. My forgiveness is hollow without love; so I have a lot of work to do. And, besides that, there is one more person on my list of people to forgive.

Forgiveness of self is perhaps one of my greatest challenges. This was an area I left untouched today until now. But I realized how important it is in my reflection. Because when I am weighed down by guilt [far too often], it makes it harder for me to focus on others. It will take some serious thought on my part, but I am determined to find a way of thinking about this that is practical and balanced.

In the meantime, each of you is loved and forgiven. I wish you all Clean Slates and Sweet Dreams.

dust and back again [a song and its exegesis]

It’s been an interesting week. I feel like a martini: shaken, stirred and sure to confuse and disorient you if you spend enough time in my company. When you have bizarre weeks, you either become predictable or erratic. Or, if you are like me and refuse to be outdone, you embody both regularity and chaos.
For example: this week I have logged hours in prayer, word games, and the consumption of caffeinated beverages. [This is not unusual, as I think you can surmise.]On the other hand, I wrote a song tonight, which I haven’t done in years. [This is unusual indeed.] Of course, what you read here, like everything else I write, could be totally different in a moment or two. But I digress.
This little ditty, “Dust and Back Again”, is a series of impressions surrounding a particularly interesting belief: the idea that people are both made of dirt and made to be like G*d, all at the same time. This is one of the more beautiful and humbling realizations of my Faith.
And I seem to be reminded at every turn that I am just as human as I ever was. . . however, I am doing my best to hold tight to that Spark, that little bit of Transcendent beauty I believe each of us has been given to use and enjoy as our gift.
I hope some of my words help you. Don’t forget: you are wonderful, simplistic, and full of fire and gleam. Hold on tight.

"For He knows how we are formed. He remembers that we are dust." - Psalm 103:14

Dust and Back Again

Sweep me up to shake me off

First your eyes burn then you cough

I am the ground and Holy Things

Friend of worms and kin to kings

 

Ash to dust

And back again

So good to see your face my friend

 

Beaten from a Persian rug

Filling in the grave you dug

Choked by rain and charred by sun

Chains rust in wait to be undone

 

Ash to dust

And back again

So good to see your face my friend

 

Fearfully and wonderfully made we are

Fearfully and wonderfully made

 

Flesh and soil lose themselves

In myrrh and tabernacle bells

Crumbs of bread and drops of wine

Up from earth to the Divine

 

Ash to dust

And back again

So good to see your face my friend

 

Fearfully and wonderfully made we are

Fearfully and wonderfully made

 

-© Beth Hopkins

 

Life Reigns

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” Luke 24:5b-6a

In the Orthodox Church, Pascha (Easter) is kind of a big deal. Actually, it is a huge deal. It is the brightest and most beautiful day of the year. It is known as the Feast of Feasts and the end of the  fast (Lent + the week before Pascha), with the feasting period lasting a full forty days [and I am not kidding about the feasting part]. It all starts around 11:00 PM on Saturday night. Yes, you read that right. The church is completely dark, and after a few prayers, the priest lights his candle with the flame from the altar, and from that light, all of the faithful light their candles; all the while singing a hymn about the Light of Christ. Everywhere you look, people are grinning from ear to ear, the children are too excited to stand still. But we’re not there yet.

There is then a procession around the church singing hymns, everyone with candles lit. Then everyone gathers at the closed doors of the church, the Priest reads from the Gospel, and for the first time, sings the Paschal hymn:

“Christ is Risen from the dead
Trampling down Death by Death
And upon those in the tombs,
Bestowing Life!”

Then the congregation sings this hymn together, and we enter the sanctuary again. It is now brightly lit, with white adornments and lilies, to match the white robes worn by the clergy. There are various other hymns, all about the Ressurection and the victory it offers the world.

It is througbout this time the priests will walk quickly through the center of the aisle, swinging the censer (full of incense) and exclaiming”Christ is Risen” as loud as they can. The people shout out the response to the Paschal greeting: “He is Risen indeed!”. Often this is done in a variety of different languages. This is one of my favorite parts of the service, because it is the first time a true celebration breaks out: shouting, beaming smiles, and candles raised. We have arrived. Truly He is Risen.

After Communion, the central point of the service, it’s time to go to the fellowship hall for the feast.

All the families in the church have brought baskets full of food they’ve missed during Lent (think every imaginable thing you could make with meat or dairy involved and you begin to get some idea). By this time, it is around 2:00 AM. Even though we are all exhausted, the joy is palpable. We eat and drink our fill of everything-from fine wine to deviled eggs and Bacon Wrapped Anything- and we rejoice together. Later the same afternoon, we come back for prayers of thanksgiving, the reading of the Gospel, and another huge meal.

As a newbie, I often struggle with talking or writing about my new expressions of Faith. Because there are so many layers, and so many questions I still have, that I feel like I don’t do it justice. But I just wanted to share some of the unique and beautiful highlights of a day that is so very joyous and sacred to so many people. I hope all of you had an Easter full of blessings, peace and light.

I wanted to leave you all with the amazing Paschal homily, which we hear each year before Communion as part of the service right before the feast. I hope it encourages you. It’s springtime. It is a time of growth and starting over. It is a time when everything is made bright and new. For He is Risen indeed!

If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let him enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.
If anyone is a wise servant, let him, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.
If anyone has wearied himself in fasting, let him now receive his recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let him keep the feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; for he shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let him not fear on account of his delay. For the Master is gracious and receives the last, even as the first; he gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one he gives, and to the other he is gracious. He both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day! You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you! The calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn his transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into hades and took hades captive! He embittered it when it tasted his flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, “Hades was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and, face to face, met God! It took earth and encountered heaven! It took what it saw but crumbled before what it had not seen!
“O death, where is thy sting? O hades, where is thy victory?”
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the First-fruits of them that slept.
To him be glory and might unto ages of ages. Amen.

for your Lentertainment

Growing up, I was not at all familiar with Lent, unless we’re talking about what you find in your belly button. I knew it started the day after Mardi Gras. I knew it was grim. And I knew it meant you could neither have stuff you wanted to have nor do stuff you wanted to do. This was about the extent of my knowledge. I maintained a safe distance from it. Sackcloth and ashes? Thanks, but no thanks.My upbringing instilled  in me an invaluable love for the Scriptures and a longing to do what’s right, but the seeming archaic traditions of Lent were unfamiliar to me. I could not understand the practical relevance of “dos” and “don’ts” to my walk with G*d and my freedom in Christ.

About a year ago, I had my first silent retreat experience at a Roman Catholic monastery in Kentucky. [You did not have to be a Roman Catholic to retreat there, simply a “Christian” designation was enough for you to be welcome.] If you have never taken a retreat to a monastery, I highly recommend it. The Lord is always ready and willing to lead us right outside of our comfort zone to find new ways to commune with him, and that kind of thing gives Him ample opportunity. One of the mementos I received from the retreat director was a Lenten devotional book. Having just started attending the Orthodox church- and very much feeling like a stranger in a strange land- the very thought of participation in Lent was daunting. So I decided to start small. One devotional a day fit nicely into my existing routine. Like Peter standing on the sea, I was fearful of this strange, new deep.

This year doesn’t find me much more confident. But in every moment, He can teach us and strengthen us. So I’m taking it one day at a time. Only about 35 more to go.

Even if Lent is not a part of your church tradition: the weeks leading up to Easter are a time of reflection and preparation across Christendom.  In that vein, I’ve seen a lot of posts on Facebook and Twitter about what people are/are not “giving up” for Lent. But I think it would be helpful to ask a ourselves different question: what do you and I want to gain from the Lenten season? It would be downright disheartening for me to think about how many slices of cheese pizza or how many scoops of ice cream I’ll be missing out on over the next 40 days. But I can think about how much more inclined I will be to lean on G*d in my many moments of weakness.

If you pour enough into a glass, whatever had been standing at the bottom will rise to the top and flow out. Although it is good to say no to certain things, it might also help to look at these decisions to abstain as a way of making room for other thoughts or practices. I’ve heard it called a time of Spring Cleaning- I like that- it always feels good to get rid of the clutter- even though things do look a little bare at first.

Fasting is never easy, or fast, for that matter. But we are taught to keep our chin up, and to not get bogged down in the difficulty. Of course, there is nothing wrong with sharing our goals with friends and family so we can have cheerleaders and partners in accountability. It is nice to know there are others out there who can appreciate the versatility of peanut butter as a meal option. But I am realizing that most of the emphasis needs to be on intimacy with G*d. Jesus gives us an interesting perspective:

16“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”- Matthew 6:16-18 (NIV)

Never one for false piety, His example is one of secret, quiet obedience. He often withdrew to lonely places to pray, and would tell people to keep quiet about his miracles, though they never did!  Clearly, He found religious hypocrisy obnoxious like we all do. But beyond that, I love His way of thinking about His spiritual life as  having secret times of communion with G*d. It is about capturing the true nature of a retreat; finding a place where you and the Lord alone are in attendance.

Some of the most special times I have had with friends were when it was “just the two of us”: whether it’s a weekend road trip, or something as simple as an inside joke, we have many experiences with our friends that are uniquely our own. This is the kind of relationship the Divine wants with us! If that is the case, far be it from me not to make room.

2010: the year of the Uke

It is decided. The tribe has spoken. In addition to tackling my anti-resolutions, I have a few more ingredients to throw in to the MMX.  Call them goals, hobbies, or habits, whatever tickles your fancy. They are a series of quests: a few prizes in my eyeses, tangible laurels to ascertain. Unlike the resolutions, which were more commitments related to mind change and paradigm shift, this lot is practical and concrete.

Here we go.

1. Daily Devotional: Yes, I cheated . I just said these goals weren’t related to the metaphysical. But this one has a practical element, I promise. To complete this practice successfully means a more solid foundation on which to build all the other pursuits. In the basic sense, it means my goal is to have at least one time a day of prayer and meditation on Scripture. I am not going to stick to a certain time of day, or any other specific format. I figure freedom within those basic parameters is the way to go.

2. Volunteering: Specifically, this undertaking will be to become a volunteer at the Nashville Public Library in the children’s section of the library, with a long term goal of being able to share a story with the children who come to explore the library with their families.

3. Writing: I have put out the appeal on Facebook for help from my friends with shaping some successful strategies for getting my writing read, received, and published, respectively. Miniquests within the Megaquest include: significant increase in blog readership/exposure, entering into writing contests, and submitting pieces to local, independent press.

4. Listing: Okay, so making lists is important. And it is not a particular strong suit of mine. [Although the irony of that statement in the context of this entry is pretty delicious.] So, I think I should start making more lists (whether it’s in my handy dandy new Moleskine™ planner or on my compy), and crossing off things as I accomplish them.

5. Musicology: I have decided to take up an instrument: the ukulele! There were several forces guiding this decision:

  • Having a hobby is good for you. Makes you feel useful and productive. Gives you a way of setting and accomplishing a series of goals
  • The Uke (as I like to call it) is a small instrument, and would be easier for me to handle than, say, a guitar or upright bass. [No reason to torment the girl with the bad motor skills, people.]
  • Not as many people play the Uke, relative to most instruments.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly:

  • The Uke is a decidedly adorable instrument: it is a known fact that there is a direct relationship between the  Adorable Quotient (AQ) of an individual and his or her proximity to, and adeptness with, a ukulele. And who doesn’t long for a higher AQ?

From the sound of this, there will be more quests in my life this year than an RPG. Commence the year of anti-resolution- on with the Year of the Uke!