Saturday 19 October 2013

Between Dog And Wolf: When Has The Night Ended?

Have you ever heard the saying “There are two types of people in this world” What do you think of it? Is there truth in it?

Yes? No?

Well I have discovered that there are two types of people in this world, those who think that there are two types of people in this world and those that know that there are not!!!

Of course it is ludicrous to suggest that there are two types of people in this world. We are all formed from the one flesh and we all have the same spirit flowing through us. Divisiveness does not help anyone.

There is a story told of a rabbi in ancient times who gathered his students together very early one morning, while it was still dark. He put this question to them: "How can you tell when night has ended and the day has begun?"

One student made a suggestion: "Could it be when you can see an animal and you can tell whether it is a sheep or a goat?"

"No, that's not it," answered the rabbi.

Another student said: "Could it be when you look at a tree in the distance and you can tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?"

Again the rabbi answered: "No."

After a few more guesses the students said: "Well, how do you tell when night has ended?"

The rabbi answered: "It is when you look on the face of any man or woman and you see them as your brother or sister. If you cannot do this, then, no matter what time it is, it is still night."

What do you see when you look into the face of any man or woman? Do you see them as your brother and or sister?

The nights are becoming longer, as I am sure you have noticed. This often brings with it a sense within us to seek hibernation, to go into ourselves. We need to be careful here, as tempting as it is. When we are hibernating we are not fully awake, we are falling asleep.

It can become difficult to awake from our slumber on these cold, darkening mornings that the Autumn brings. The temptation is to stay in and not awaken to life, to turn inwards and not to live in the world.

This last Tuesday I experienced a lovely example of waking up into the cold Autumn day. Every Tuesday I attend an early morning meditation in the schoolroom at the chapel. Now when my alarm went off at a little before 6am part of me didn’t want to get up and step into the cold darkness of the morning. But I did. I prayed my morning prayers; I sought inspiration from the great mystery and listened to the birds outside my window. I showered and got ready for the day. I then slipped next door for the meditation. We greeted one another with humour and coffee and then we enjoyed silence together in complete darkness. As the silence ended the light was just starting to appear through the windows. We then began to share about our own personal joys and troubles with our spiritual journeys. As everyone spoke I looked at their faces and connected with them and saw in them my own brother and sister, I saw myself reflected back at me. I saw a reflection of the Divine in their eyes and heard it in their words. There was no sense that there were two types of people in the room that morning.

It is so tempting at times to live with this idea that there are two types of people in this world those that are for me and those that are against me; that there are those that are my friends and those who are my foes. It is so easy to be seduced by the need to keep an eagle eye out for ‘foes’, because if we do not they may well cause us harm; that these people are dangerous, even “toxic” and you must keep them out of your life.

There is a French saying “L’heure entre chien et loup” which translates as “The hour between dog and wolf”. The saying is basically describing the time just as the sun is setting, the twilight hours when you cannot really differentiate between dog and wolf, between who is a friend and who is a foe.

The phrase “The hour between dog and wolf?” has only recently come into my consciousness. This is because it is the title of New Model Army’s latest album, as well as the film that has just been made about their strange and enduring career. By the way the album is an absolute sonic masterpiece, their best work for over 20 years...

“Between dog and wolf, between water and wine, between wine and blood.”

By the way I discovered the other day that this week is "Wolf Awareness Week"...A nice bit of synchronicity as I formulated ideas around the time between dog and wolf.

The idea that there are two types of people in this world brings to mind some lyrics from a really old song by New Model Army’s “Better than them” and the words of the chorus...

Divided we were born,divided we live
divided we fall,yeah,divided we die
still we tell ourselves over and over again
we're better than them... (we're better than them)
we're better than them..
We’re not like them, we’re better than them...

"Better Than Them" 

The song is essentially a rant against this sense of superiority and separation that all groups of people and individuals feel from time to time, that sadly some of us feel permanently; this sense that somehow we are better than, or less than other people. It seems to go on in all sections of society and throughout human history. It is there is religion, but also secular society. Some religious groups talk about the saved and the unsaved, others talk of being God’s chosen people. When they speak this way they are talking of a God I do not recognise. The God I know accepts and loves all universally. Experience has revealed to me that we are all chosen by God, it’s just that so many of us turn away and cannot believe that there is a spirit that is there in all life.

Then of course there are the anti-religionists who ridicule people of faith; who see it all as purely infantile projections. They mock, they poke fun, they separate people into the stupid and the wise. They say we are not like them, we’re better than them.

I am no better by the way; I do it too. There are days when I feel superior to other people and there are days when I feel less than them. That said thank God most days I recognise the truth that there is one human family. We are made of the same flesh and we have the same spirit within each of us.

When the epistle Paul talked of the oneness, the unity in Christianity, he wrote that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek.” He did not say that there are no longer Jews or Greeks more that people are no longer separated by these distinctions; that they are all one in love, in body and in spirit; that if all people are viewed in the light they are brothers and sisters to one another.

As Tenzin Gyatso XIVth Dalai Lama has said “Mentally, physically and emotionally we are the same. We each have the potential to be good and bad and to be overcome by disturbing emotions such as anger, fear, hatred, suspicion and greed. These emotions can be the cause of many problems. On the other hand if you cultivate loving kindness, compassion and concern for others, there will be no room for anger, hatred and jealousy.

These words very much chime with a favourite story of mine, “The Two Wolves"

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It’s a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, ego and it makes me cynical about life.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, faith and it fills me with enthusiasm for life. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Where does this sense of superiority come from, this sense that we are somehow better than other people? Where does this fear of some people come from? Well I believe it comes from habit. We are taught to fear the stranger who is not exactly like us, we are taught to separate one another, to see the difference. Habits, especially fear based ones, are hard to break.

This brings to mind a tale I recently came across...

"There is a story from the middle ages about a poor farmer whose plow one day hit an iron box that was buried in his field. When he opened up this box, he found inside a scroll which gave directions to a fantastic treasure. It said that on a certain part of the beach on the shore of the Black Sea there was a magic pebble. If you rubbed this pebble against any kind of metal it would turn that metal into gold. Now this pebble looked like every other pebble, but you could identify it by touch. If you picked up the other pebbles, they would be cold. But the magic pebble would be warm.

Now this story seemed unreliable, but the farmer believed in it. He sold all that he had and moved to the shore of the Black Sea. He began his search for this great treasure. There were of course millions of pebbles on the beach, and it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. But he began resolutely. He would pick up a pebble. If it was cold (and therefore not the magic one), he would hurl the pebble into the sea. Then he would then pick up the next pebble. He followed this pattern hour after hour, day after day, and year after year. Pick up the pebble. It is cold. Throw it into the sea. Pick up the next pebble. He never gave up. He kept trying until one day, a rather ordinary day, he picked up a pebble and it was warm. Then, in shear force of habit, he threw it into the sea."

The man was so used to throwing the stone in the sea that when he finally picked up the hot stone he just threw it into the sea without thinking. Habitual thinking and behaving are not easy things to break free from.

So how do we get to the place where we can tell when the night has ended, where when we look into someone else’s eyes we see our brother and our sister. How do we get out of the habit of separating people into one camp or another? Well I believe it begins by us waking up to reverence in one another and to practise loving kindness each and every day. This is not easy. I know this from personal experience. Every day I find myself putting up the barriers of separation; every day I find myself doing all I can to ensure that they come tumbling back down again. It is perhaps a whole life times work and perhaps beyond, this moving from night to day. That said I believe it is possible and we can begin aspiring to it right here right now. We just need to wake up.

It can begin with your next encounter. When you look into the eyes of the next person you meet, what do you see?

I am going to end this little chip of a blogspot with a story from the life of the Buddha.

It is said that soon after his enlightenment that the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha's extraordinary radiance and peaceful presence. The man stopped and asked, "My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?"

"No," said the Buddha.

"Well, then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?"

Again the Buddha answered, "No."

"Are you a man?" "No."

"Well, my friend, then what are you?"

The Buddha replied, "I am awake."

The night has ended and the day has begun.

We need to be awake.

"Between Dog and Wolf"

Sunday 13 October 2013

Hauling Out Stones: Reconciling Ourselves

In “Eternal Echoes” John O’Donohue wrote:

“When personal guilt in relation to a past event becomes a continuous cloud over your life, you are locked in a mental prison. You have become your own jailer. Although you should not erase your responsibility for the past, when you make the past your jailer, you destroy your future. It is such a great moment of liberation when you learn to forgive yourself, let the burden go, and walk out into a new path of promise and possibility. Self-compassion is a wonderful gift to give yourself.

And D. Patrick Miller wrote “Never forget to forgive yourself is to release trapped energy that could be doing good in the world.”

I wonder sometimes if we ever reconcile, if we ever put things right with ourselves; I wonder sometimes if the reason we find it hard to move on with our lives and do all that we can to serve our world is because we have never released ourselves from our own shame and guilt. How many of us can honestly say they have become fully reconciled with every aspect themselves?

What I mean by this is how many of us have truly reconciled ourselves with our whole selves? I know I still find it hard to truly forgive myself for the way I have been in my darkest days. For the way I viewed myself, others and the world in which I live. It is hard for me to truly recognise that man today, but I know I must if I am to understand everyone I come into contact with; If I am love them without prejudice; if I am to serve life; if I am to minister, which of course means to serve.

Over the last few days I have been remembering a time of my life, just 10 years ago. I have been re-connecting, reconciling myself with the memory. I see this as a truly religious act; remember religion comes from "religare" which means to re-bind. It is an attempt to reconcile myself with this man, something I feel I must do if I am to truly minister; it is something I must do so as to release me to do all that I can in the world.

The image that has been speaking to me is of a reflection of myself in a shop window, ten years ago almost to the day and the utter hatred I felt for that figure looking back at me. It was initially just a glimpse out of the corner of my eye and then I stopped, I paused and realised just how much I hated the man looking back at me in the glass. Now I know this sounds dreadful but it was a real turning point in my life, from that moment forward things began to change. I am so far removed from that figure today and yet this man was me, is me, but I find it very hard to recognise him and there is a part of me that still cannot love him, that doesn’t want to know him, that rejects him.

Of all the stories that Jesus told I think it is the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (Luke Ch 15 vv 11-31) that speaks most powerfully to me. It is a universal tale that speaks on so many levels about the blessings and troubles with forgiveness and reconciliation. There are three characters in the tale a father and his two sons. The youngest son squanders his inheritance on a hedonistic lifestyle, he loses everything. In desperation he sells himself into slavery and due to a great famine finds himself close to starvation. It is at this point of utter despair and hopelessness that he remembers where he has come from, he remembers his father and reasons that even his father’s slaves have a better life than him. So he returns home to throw himself on his father's mercy, not as his son but as a slave. On hearing he is returning his father rushes to meet him. As his son atones his father does more than forgive him. He kisses him, a beautiful touch of intimacy and orders that the fatted calf be slaughtered and a huge party of much rejoicing be held, to celebrate the return of his son who was once lost but now is found.

The parable of "The Prodigal Son" is a beautiful tale of redemption and forgiveness, but is it a realistic one? If only it was that easy. Well actually there is so much more to this story than has already been discussed, there is another character who does not find forgiveness so easy to come by. There is the other brother who refuses to rejoice and celebrate the returning of his long lost sibling. Quite the opposite in fact, he is angry, he is indignant, he will not reconcile with his brother and is now at odds with his father. In fact he does not even refer to the "prodigal" as his own brother. Instead he names his as “This son of yours” and by doing so disowns him emotionally. He tells his father all he has done for him and yet has received nothing in return for his good and virtuous life. His father pleads with him and then utters the immortal words, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” He tells his older son that all that is his belongs to him and also reminds him that this brother of his has returned from the dead. He reminds him that he is his brother and therefore a part of him. They were all three of them once bound together and now need to be once again reconciled, they need to be re-bound. Reconciliation is a deeply religious act.

I wonder sometimes if I myself have become like the older brother who really would rather not recognise the younger brother who is a part of me. It is not easy to forgive ourselves for our failings. I think sometimes I would prefer to disown that aspect of myself, but I know that this is not the right way, the loving way. I know if I want to truly be of service to this world I need to be fully reconciled with all that I am, so as to be able to love without prejudice. I also need to recognise that in each and every person exists each of the three “Prodigal Son” characters. The one who is returning seeking forgiveness, the one offering forgiveness and the one who can feel rejected and neglected by this expression of love. Reconciliation is a process and one that takes time; it is a long journey but one that is certainly worth embarking upon. It is far from easy, but it is without a shadow of a doubt worth embarking upon.

So how do we begin the journey? How do we forgive ourselves for our own short comings? How do we reconcile every aspect of ourselves? How can we once again be at peace with our distracted hearts and minds? How do we, imperfect as we all are, return home? How do we accept that kiss of reconciliation? How we do we once again accept those aspects of ourselves that have rejected the love offered to us?

Some may ask why do we need to reconcile ourselves? This is all self indulgence; we just need to get on with our lives. Well if only we could. So many people seem to endlessly punish themselves. How often I have heard people in just the last few weeks say that "They are ashamed of themselves" for all manner of small things. I wonder if it is the small things that has caused this feeling or whether it is something much deeper hidden within them. If I have learnt anything in life I have learnt that if we do not forgive ourselves and fully reconcile ourselves with every part of our being we will not be able to fully live in our world and give to our world all that we able to give. The fruits of life are there for all of us to delight in and yet so many still feel unworthy of them, this saddens me.

I have learnt that the journey of reconciliation begins with listening. We need to listen "with ears of our hearts". We need to learn to listen to ourselves and to one another. This allows us to draw closer to one another and to those aspects of ourselves we would rather keep hidden, locked away. This often requires seeking counsel from someone else, someone who can understand in a none judgemental way.

In the Catholic tradition there exists the “Sacrament of Reconciliation”, more commonly known as confession. Now the picture that is often painted of this is that it is an attempt to seek forgiveness from the priest or from God, but there is so much more to it than this. The real gift of this sacrament is that it creates a sacred space where a person can speak openly with another human being about what has been haunting them. By sharing our struggles with another human being we are literally getting them out of our heads and therefore giving these ghosts from the past and or present air to breathe, thus enabling us to see them with new, with fresh eyes. It allows us a new perspective on ourselves and our own lives. It allows us to fully reconcile ourselves with every aspect of our being, something that is difficult nay impossible if attempted alone. This is why intimate friends are so vital, why counsellors and therapists are important and why ministers, priests, rabbis, priestesses and Imams play such a vital role in people’s lives.

We all need a place where we can go, where someone will draw close to us and listen as we come close to who we are in all our hope and despair. Where we can truly reveal all that we are “warts and all and beauty spots too.” Where we can be taken out of our silent isolation, where the stones of our imperfection can begin to be hauled out.

This idea is near perfectly illustrated in the following poem by Nancy Shaffer:

“Hauling Out Stones” by Nancy Shaffer

Once, he said an odd thing:

Forgiving begins with someone

sitting near.

Later, he said, It isn’t for the one

who did the hurting.

It’s the other one who needs it.

One day, without warning,

he wept.

I sat close.

He told an old hurt

in half-sentences and single words

like stones he was coming upon, new;

like tree limbs, broken,

which he needed both arms for hauling aside.

A half-dozen times that summer we sat,

he weeping, hauling out stones,

gathering limbs; I near.

The stones got smaller,

his sentences, longer.

He said, It’s the crying part

I couldn’t do by myself.

And later he said, I feel cleaned out.

A wan smile.

Still later, he said,

I think I’ve done it.

Made a kind of peace, he meant.

He slapped his palm hard against mine.

Laughed. Slapped his palm again.

Reconciliation begins by finding someone we can truly be ourselves with; it begins by finding someone who by drawing close can help us begin to truly reconcile ourselves, which ever son or daughter or father or mother you are. If you are anything like me, which I suspect most people are, you are no doubt a bit of each.

To fully live, to not get weighed down by the past requires reconciliation on every level. To truly be all we can be in this world of ours we must learn to forgive, not to forget quite the opposite actually. We need to remember, we need to re-member, we need to rejoin together all that we are. For me I need to not only learn to smile and love that man who looks back at me in mirror today but the one from 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. For others that might be something different.. That said I firmly believe that reconciliation begins when we draw closer to ourselves and to one another.