30 January 2011
4th Sunday after Epiphany
I was brought up Catholic. And though I left Catholicism in my early teens, it shaped my reality as a child. An important part of that reality was based on the belief that if I was good I would go to heaven when I died.
What‘s it like to be in heaven? This is a question I remember pondering as a child as I lay awake late at night. The heaven I imagined was a world suffused in light, a vast expanse of brightness and stillness where nothing ever happened. One day followed the next endlessly – literally without end – and there were no events of any kind to set one day apart from another. Even if something could happen in heaven I would know about it in advance, since – having died – all things would be known to me. And having already died, there was not even the prospect of death sometime in the future to put an end to this monotony. No, heaven had no emergency exits. It would hold me in its passionless embrace day after day forever and ever.
It was a terrifying prospect.
The thought of it still frightens me.
On the face of it the eight beatitudes or core teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew are based on a familiar – though more sophisticated – formula of rewarding good behavior: If you act in a certain way – usually some way that’s not very appealing, like being meek, or poor in spirit, or going into mourning – then something really good will happen to you – in the future, after you die.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
But being blessed and going to heaven after I die is not all that appealing or meaningful, as I understood in my own childlike way when I was a boy. Heaven as a place we go after this life is not a helpful concept in guiding our day-to-day life, and yet it is clear that in the beatitudes Jesus is teaching his listeners core life lessons, lessons to be put into practice now.
How can we understand the beatitudes in the present tense, in the life each of us is leading today?
If the word blessed refers to the present, something we can attain to now, how do we know that we are blessed? What are its hallmarks?
The Jerusalem Bible uses the word “happy” instead of “blessed” in its rendering of the beatitudes. To me this is a better choice of words, for though we often use the word in a superficial way, true happiness – the happiness that is not contingent on certain fortuitous events but is cultivated and is at the core of our being – is a state of consciousness that we recognize when we experience it. We know when we are truly happy, because we experience inner peace. And inner peace is rooted in freedom – freedom from the torments of conscience, from guilt, from shame, from having to prove to ourselves and the world over and over again that we are good enough, talented enough, smart enough, productive enough to have a place in the world.
So this happiness, or blessedness, when placed right in the midst of our busy lives, refers to a state of consciousness. Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is within (in our very being ). The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (it is already present).
Heaven is not a place you go to, but a dimension of experience. It is a transformed awareness that stills the inner turmoil created by conflicted motives and desires and turns this world into a different place.
What gives rise to this awareness?
I think it springs from a recognition of the intensity of our connectedness. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me as I in you.” Reality is indivisible. We belong to one another, we belong to all of creation, and our aliveness is rooted in God’s aliveness.
How does this awareness manifest itself in the world? How does it find its expression in our lives?
A good friend of mine, a Holocaust survivor, lent me a book about the small minority of non-Jews in Europe during World War II who risked their own lives and the lives of family members to save Jews. In Israel these rescuers are honored with the title “Righteous Among the Nations.” They were as diverse a group as one can possibly imagine: Farmers, nuns, ordinary townfolk, individual churchmen, academicians. One of my favorites is the professional thief Leopold Socha, and one of his pre-war companions in crime, Stefan Wroblewskian, both of whom were sewer workers in wartime Lvov in eastern Poland. They made it possible for ten Jews to survive the round-up and executions in the ghetto in June 1943 by leading them – literally – into the sewers, with which they had long been familiar as a hiding place for their stolen goods. They brought food to them every day, always using a different manhole to reach them so as not to arouse suspicion. Each week they would take the dirty clothes of those they were hiding and return them washed. At Passover, knowing the Jews could not eat leavened bread, Leopold brought a large load of potatoes, which he pushed down through several manholes.
What motivated, what impelled the rescuers to risk everything for the sake of saving a Jew, who was often a complete stranger? Some rescuers were religious. Many others were not motivated in any obvious or apparent way by their faith. What was it then? I believe it was that they were so connected to their core being, their essence, that they could not act otherwise. Most people did not have time to ponder how they would act. A knock at the door in the middle of the night. They had to decide in the moment whether they would put their lives on the line for the sake of another who in many cases was not a member of their family or even a friend. The punishment for hiding a Jew – and this was especially true in Eastern Europe – was death for your entire family. Why would anyone choose to do that?
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
It is not rational and downright foolish to risk your life and the lives of your family for another, unless you know a different reality from the one in which we are schooled in society. These rescuers, I submit, could not act other than the way they did because they would not have been able to live with themselves if they had made a different choice. They would have experienced the polar opposite of inner peace, which is inner torment, HELL. And so they chose Heaven, blessedness, truth, righteousness, meaning inner peace and freedom, while all the rest chose safety, security.
They were prepared when the unexpected stranger arrived, the one who would ask them whether they recognized their true face mirrored in the one who was asking for mercy. They were connected to the truth about our reality as human beings, and so could make a response aligned with that truth.
The truth is that we are all connected, all of us coming from the same Source. This is as true from a purely scientific – evolutionary –viewpoint as it is from a Christian one. The difference between the connection we learn about from science and the connection that Jesus awakens us to is that Jesus’s connection is rooted in love. “Love they neighbor AS yourself.” Not as much as yourself, but as if you were your neighbor, because you are your neighbor. Some people know this without the benefit of Jesus’s teaching. But I, and I suspect most of you here, need to learn this from a wise teacher, and as Christians Jesus is our primary wisdom teacher.
So if we are true as individuals we will act in accordance with the truth. And the truth is more powerful than rational thought, than prudent action, than what logic would tell us, as demonstrated – as lived – by the non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the time of the Holocaust.
But if being true in the way that Jesus asks of us might lead us to do something foolish, like putting our lives and the lives of loved ones at risk, why would we seek out this path?
Because that is how we find inner peace, how we experience blessedness, how we become happy. We hunger for this inner peace, because its absence, which is all too familiar, is marked by the torment of inner conflict, a divided self unable to live into the fullness of its humanity.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Be prepared, as the rescuers were prepared when they were put to the ultimate test. And though none of us can know in advance how we will respond when we are asked to put our lives on the line for the sake of another, we can prepare ourselves by engaging in practices that connect us to who we are behind the masks we present to society and one another, even to ourselves. We can cultivate an authentic presence in the world. For the fact is that we are confronted all the time with the question of whether to be true or false.
What are some of the practices that connect us to the truth of who we are, that help us to be authentic, to drop the masks, to be prepared when we are put to the test in small and large ways?
I can name several that I have found helpful. This is not to say that I am any more true to who I am than any one of us, only that the practices I will name have been helpful in allowing me to experience – if only for a fleeting moment – a healing of the splits in myself and being integrated, in finding the courage and grace to stop pretending or even wanting to come across as a certain kind of person for the sake of pleasing others or becoming “successful.” Here are three of my practices:
1. Daily prayer. I learned to pray daily from Anthony Bloom, a Russian Orthodox monk who wrote a primer on how to pray. I begin when I wake up by giving thanks for being alive, even if I don’t feel particularly grateful. Then I leave the house and go swimming at the Y, where I resume praying as I swim. I have found that combining prayer with exercise deepens my prayer time because the motion of my body as I swim quite easily and reliably gets me out of the critical thinking state of mind – left brain –into the spatial, timeless state of mind – right brain, where I can be mindful, present. I pray/exercise at the same time every day – first thing in the morning, before the day with its many demands can claim all of my time and rob me of the opportunity to become centered and tend to my relationship with the Beloved. And I enjoy this immensely. When I finish I feel energetic, hopeful, and ready to go out into the world.
2. Connection to others – I cultivate the connections to friends , family, and colleagues in order to experience the truth of being connected and not just affirm the idea. I make time for them. I try to affirm what I can honestly affirm. I try to be fully present, even if it’s only for a few minutes. I answer all of my personal e-mail. I make an effort to be mindful in my encounters with strangers and look for opportunities to make connections. Meeting the eye of the salesperson, the homeless beggar on K Street, that center of power and money where I work, noticing the kindness of others and acknowledging and encouraging it, if possible. Late last Wednesday evening during the height of the snowstorm I was making my way home on foot along Colesville Road when I came upon two couples who were serving hot chocolate and coffee for free to the many motorists trapped in their vehicles in a monumental traffic jam that stretched as far as the eye could see. One of these kind souls offered me hot chocolate. I thanked him for what he and his friends were doing, because their kindness encouraged me to think beyond my own comfort on that bitter cold night and open my heart to the people around me. Almost instantaneously I felt lighter and cheerful.
3. Play/Creativity. These two words are inseparable to me. To play as an adult is probably one of the least appreciated activities in our society. Grownups aren’t supposed to play. We have problems, we’re too busy, we have important things to do. We think it’s a waste of time, and that we could be doing more productive things. We live in a culture obsessed with wringing an external result from everything we do. But play is not about the result; it’s about the experience, and it’s precisely the lack of a quantifiable result that allows play to satisfy core needs and reveal the authentic person behind the masks of job and society. (Acknowledge Joe Robinson’s article on The Key to Happiness: A Taboo for Adults). I am speaking here mainly of non-competitive forms of play that are done for the intrinsic pleasure with no judgment and outcomes needed. (Organized competitive forms of play deliver other benefits.) If play is grounded in the creative process, as InterPlay is, then it can reveal the animating spirit within each of us. In the leading of InterPlay that Kate and I do, it never fails to amaze me that a group of individuals who at the outset might appear to me to include one or two interesting people and a lot of ordinary folk will in the space of a few hours be transformed into a collection of extraordinary individuals, each of whom I would be grateful to know better. Why this change in perspective? Because deep engaged play relieves us of the burden to be someone we’re not. There’s nothing at stake and we are in the flow, grounded in the now. When people have permission – and the tools – to be real and authentic, every one of them is INTERESTING. Everyone a child of God, unique, loveable, extraordinary. And what a relief it is to me let go of judging others! Now that’s freedom for you!
May we encourage one another to engage in practices that reveal our true face, that challenge us to be authentically present, and that help us to be prepared to answer when we are called.