Saturday, December 20, 2014

"A crow once flew into the sky with a piece of meat in its beak.  Twenty crows set out in pursuit of it and attacked it viciously.  The crow finally let the piece of meat drop.  Its pursuers then left it alone and flew shrieking after the piece of meat.  Said the crow: 'It is peaceful up here now.  The whole sky belongs to me.'"

-- Fr. Anthony de Mello

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

There are so many points of rumination surrounding the tragic hostage situation in Sydney, Australia.  The fact that the perpetrator was not an Islamic terrorist (as some have claimed) but rather a deranged individual who channeled his anger at the world through religion.  The fact that, because of Australia's strict gun control laws, this was a tragedy but not a massacre (as it likely would have been in the U.S.).  The fact that the hero who sacrificed himself to save the rest of the hostages was a gay man who, in Australia, was not allowed to donate blood.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

"The scope and reality of the United States' torture of detainees is now clear and undeniable.  We are anguished and humbly repent for the sins that were done on our behalf and in our name.  Torture is wrong.  It is a sin against God.  It is a sin against the humanity of those being tortured and those doing the torture.  We ask forgiveness for our nation."

- Statement from North Seattle Friends Church (Quaker)

Today, in the Catholic church, is the feast day of the 16th century mystic, John of the Cross--perhaps best known for coining the (often misunderstood) term "dark night of the soul."  Here are a few quotes from John of the Cross:

"Contemplation is nothing else but a secret, peaceful, and loving infusion of God, which if admitted, will set the soul on fire with the Spirit of love."

"The soul feels its ardor strengthen and increase and its love become so refined in this ardor that seemingly there flow seas of loving fire within it, reaching to the heights and depths of the earthly and heavenly spheres, imbuing all with love. It seems to it that the entire universe is a sea of love in which it is engulfed, for conscious of the living point or center of love within itself, it is unable to catch sight of the boundaries of this love."

"The flame of love
grows as it is divided
it increases by being shared
from one, then two, then three
and darkness is transformed into glory
and the walls reflect its light
Share your flame!
Share your flame!"

Friday, December 12, 2014

"The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid 'dens of crime' that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state..."

-- C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

The Sisterhood

Carla told me recently that if I died before her she would be tempted to become a nun and enter into a life of uninterrupted religious devotion and service.  I chuckled and told her that I had pondered something very similar: that if she died I might enter a monastery.  We're both attracted to the idea of lives of profound simplicity and contemplation and service within intentional community.  The fact that we're Quakers and not in the least attracted to ritual and liturgy is a bit problematic, however.  But I have great admiration for monastics, be they Catholic, Anglican, Buddhist or whatever. 

A few years ago the BBC ran a reality show entitled The Big Silence in which a group of average (and not particularly religious) women and men were whisked off to an eight day silent Jesuit retreat in Wales.  The sudden removal from the hustle and bustle of daily life caused the participants to initially climb the walls in withdrawal from sensory saturation, but ultimately they were each deeply transformed by the experience.  The BBC also ran a related reality show called The Monastery in which five guys (again, most of them not particularly religious) spent six weeks in a Benedictine monastery.  Again, the men were profoundly effected (and the show was a surprise hit, which resulted in monasteries and convents in the U.K. being flooded with inquiries).  A U.S. version of The Monastery was also produced, which I haven't seen.  I think all of these can be viewed on Youtube.

Last night I watched a new American reality show (via Amazon Instant Video), that is another take on The Monastery concept, entitled The Sisterhood.  In it, five reasonably devout Catholic women in their early twenties spend six weeks in a convent in order to discern if they are called to become nuns.  Each woman wrestles with the tension between her desire to enter religious vocation and the allure of life outside the nunnery.  As with all reality shows, one wonders how much of the drama is contrived by the producers and editors.  The young women tend to come across as annoyingly shallow and naive.  For example, they balk at being asked to eschew their make-up and surrender their cell phones upon entering the convent.  But the real treat of the show is the nuns.  They are joyous and centered and marvelously down-to-earth.  Their interaction with the five worldly young women is gentle, patient, non-judgmental and compassionate.  The nuns remind me very much of those depicted in the BBC drama Call the Midwife.  They seem to live more fully in the present moment and give their full attention to those they interact with.  They talk frankly about their pre-vocational pasts (including romances) and the challenges of living in close community.  "I'm surprised there hasn't been a murder," jokes one veteran sister.

It is nice to see men and women of religious orders depicted in this way, rather than as the stern and bitter and repressed caricatures so often served up by central casting.  I wonder if programs like The Sisterhood and The Monastery and The Big Silence and Call the Midwife are tapping into a growing hunger in 21st century Western culture.  As Europe and the U.K. and the Americas transition into post-Christendom and the Church-at-large loses its entitled authority and credibility, many people of faith seem to be seeking out that which is deep and true and real.  The last few decades have seen a steady increase in interest in contemplative practices, including those from the rich Christian tradition that fell into neglect around the time of the Reformation.

I wonder if we might see a movement analogous to that of the Desert Monastics where, beginning in the late third century, men and women left the cities in droves to go into the wilderness and form communities in pursuit of genuine and intense spirituality.  But even for those of us unlikely to enter the desert or the monastery or the convent, there does seem to be a movement of withdrawal from shallow religion (as evidenced by the phenomenon of "the Nones": mature Christians walking away from their churches and not returning) in search of something more authentic and transformative.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"I am especially struck with the idea of the purposeless life, 'filling the well with snow.'  I suppose all life is just that anyway, but we are obsessed with purpose."

-- Thomas Merton

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

-- Rainer Maria Rilke

Monday, December 08, 2014