Joyce Rupp, OSM
Can we be truly happy for those who enjoy what we do not have? This question arose when I was reading the Easter stories. I noticed how only a few disciples of Jesus actually received the gift of directly encountering his risen presence. Did those without this experience carry some envy or disappointment? Did they covet that direct engagement? Luke's gospel describes two disciples who felt extremely discouraged, choosing to trudge back home to Emmaus, mumbling downheartedly about reports that others had actually came directly in contact with Jesus. They had not experienced this and gave up hope of doing so. (Lk24:13-35)
Their emotions are not strangers to my own heart. During January a begrudging voice in me tried to take over my outlook on life. This chiding voice reminded me daily of friends and colleagues finding refuge from winter's bleakness by going to warmer locations. Every week someone else slipped away for a delicious break while I worked steadfastly with no hope of having similar leisure.
This poor-me voice finally hushed when a memory of an incident three years ago surfaced. In preparation for going to Iona, Scotland for a retreat, I went to a discount store to buy some boots. The clerk who waited on me expressed good cheer about my being able to make the trip. As I left the store with my new boots it suddenly occurred to me that the clerk most probably could not afford to go anywhere outside the United States. Yet, there she was, truly happy for me.
That recognition humbled me. The memory of it led to a deeper interiority where I could sincerely rejoice with those whose leisure I begrudged. "This is a kind of unconditional love," I thought, "to be happy for others whose prosperity is not mine."
Lessons abound when taking a backward glance. I learned that envy smothers gratitude. Desire for what is lacking can muscle its way into dissatisfaction and rob my life of the goodness it contains. Envy diverts attention from what already exists in beneficial quantity. In my situation, I neglected to see how I enjoy winter's beauty, the wide evenings of darkness that allow for satisfying gatherings of friends, the long spaces for reading books piled up during summer's feverish activity. I had also abandoned gratefulness for winter's gift of the nurturing space it provides for writing. Gratitude momentarily went down the drain of forgetfulness when I let my grumpy longings pull me away from recognizing the valuable gifts that were mine.
Many situations can tempt us to resent another's good fortune. Can we rejoice with those whose spiritual life seems to flow easily when ours feels more like a boulder stuck in the mud? Can we affirm the giftedness in another that is not in in ourselves? Can we support wholeheartedly those whose childhoods did not contain the pain that ours did? Can we reach out with compassion to the person whose illness is the exception while our chronic poor health rarely departs? Can we be glad for other people's material wealth? Can we be satisfied with what is ours?
We do not need to strive for another's benefits. The Risen Christ is near to us, just as he was with those two dejected disciples on the road to Emmaus who felt they lacked what others had experienced. Now is the time to release envy and welcome what we have already been given.
Last summer a comment from an avid swimmer in British Columbia reawakened a valuable truth. When I mentioned a scrape on her arm, Kathy nonchalantly explained, "I get some every summer from the sharp-edged barnacles on the rocks. When my grandson started swimming with me I told him he was bound to get these cuts. One day he called across the water in a proud voice: "I got one, Grandma!" Her grandson obviously accepted this as part of the price for a free-spirited frolic in the ocean. Kathy's comment reminded me that hardly any of us find something rewarding without also having to accept the effort, hardship, challenge, steady determination and vulnerability that often accompany what we desire.
Today's culture suggests that if we have enough money, the right social connections, sufficient information, the appropriate or the best this or that, then the work and discipline will not be necessary. Good things rarely happen all by themselves. There is almost always a cost underneath what one enjoys or finds beneficial. Something might look effortless or seem to have been easily developed, but usually this is not so.
It's natural to want the benefits of life without having to pay the price for them. I find this to be inherent for most people and I find it true for myself. There are days when I wish I could have a deeper relationship with the Holy One without getting up early for meditation. A desire to avoid the price to be paid comes forth when I whine about the time it takes to prepare talks or pack my suitcase for air travel. At the same time, I relish being with kindred spirits, discovering fresh landscapes, and teaching what I find to be helpful for spiritual growth.
When the Women's March occurred I heard remarks indicating how little price some of the participants wanted to pay for the social change they desired: "I'm not going. I don't like to walk in the rain... We stood for hours and couldn't march...The speeches were too long... We were told there'd be food and there wasn't any... We had to sit on the bus forever... There was no drinking water anywhere..."
After hearing those comments, my thoughts turned to a book I'd recently read about the endless, determined and difficult actions by those engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. In Across That Bridge, Georgia congressman John Lewis describes what he and others experienced in their non-violent and persistent efforts: spit upon, beaten, humiliated, jailed as criminals. Some were killed. They paid a great price, as do many who stand up for human rights. So now, Lent is upon us and I ask myself the question: "Am I willing to pay the price for the transformation I seek in my personal life and in the society to which I belong?"
Jesus paid the price for his desire to create a world of loving kindness. His death came about because his teachings and actions challenged religious and political establishments. He spoke of peace, not war; of forgiveness, not vengeance; of kindness, not judgment; of mercy, not condemnation; of love, not fear. He urged his followers: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Mk8:34) The willingness of Jesus to pay the price for his beliefs inspires me to do the same for what is truest in my heart.
Abundant peace, Joyce Rupp
"Where do you find your joy?" Cindy's question surfaced in our conversation about dismal conditions here and elsewhere on the planet - such as surging violence, increasing suicides, heartless politicians, greater hostility and less respect for people with differing views. I stumbled and mumbled a few words in response to Cindy's query, but couldn't offer much that day. The next morning I reflected on the question: Where do I find joy? I gathered a surprisingly long list of items. None had a megaphone quality but each held definite worth for keeping hope close by. Among the list: A sliver of sunshine after lengthy seasonal gloom, the gesture of a stranger's kindness, hundreds of geese circling above the lake, the taste of truth in a book, morning coffee, a good movie, felt kinship in communal prayer, the easy rhythm of a long walk, a friend's hearty laugh, and the harmonious melody of a favorite song.
Joy often lies hidden in the layers of what is disconcerting and troublesome. It slips in briefly, whispering, "Don't let go of the possibility of change." When the focus of life tends toward "what is wrong," rather than "what goes well," pleasures and satisfactions become buried in the press of constant work, home responsibilities, care of others and, perhaps most of all, in the constant barrage of bad news fed from every media source. When I am regularly bathed in this onslaught of news, I fail to notice the goodness in life and joy soon fades from view.
Award-winning broadcaster Krista Tippett writes in Becoming Wise: "I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn't know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself. A sense of humor is high on my list of virtues, in interplay with humility and compassion and a capacity to change when that is the right thing to do. It's one of those virtues that softens us for all the others."
At the same time that Tippett's wisdom merits great value, there exist persons whose situations contain such severe and painful desolation that no amount of searching for joy can birth this positive quality. South African president Nelson Mandela encouraged remembrance of this in his 1991 message: "As we enter the New Year, we cannot forget those of our fellow citizens whose lot is the despair of homelessness, hunger and poverty. Millions of our people are still denied fundamental human rights - shelter, food and the right to a full and productive life."
Perhaps a balance can be found in George Bernard Shaw's quote from David Richo's The Five Things We Cannot Change: "This is the true joy in life: being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap, being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish, little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy."
Wherever and however we find ourselves at the opening of 2017, whether swimming in ease or drowning in distress, let us notice and receive joy whenever possible. Let us also work tirelessly to change other's harsh conditions. Carry both of these strengths into the new year. May each of us lift our hearts toward joy and savor it's beneficial remedy for sustaining hope.
Winter invites me once more.... to go within the within...
Hibernate. Gestate.... Wander around the inner domain
without a concern for what may, or may not surface.
(My Soul Feels Lean)
Here in Iowa the autumn season has generously spent its energy on vivid colors and warm weather. The frigid winds of winter wait impatiently to have their way. This past month the land provided enriching lessons about spiritual growth as I drove through the Midwest to give retreats on "Little Pieces of Light." I noticed how the corn and soybean fields sat stripped of their summer crops. Gardens revealed empty vines and wilted flowers. Orchards gave quick evidence of having yielded their fruitful produce. Tree branches lost their thick greenery. All that abundance of grain and beauty, soon to be just a memory.
Iowa poet James Autry refers to October as "the last burst of extravagant life." In November the land enters a new phase where it loses this "extravagance." It waits silently through the unproductive winter season. Although the land will appear dead, nutrients remain and regenerate in the untilled soil. The constant surge of energy that nature gave to summer's plenitude will silently retain life-giving power during the slower paced months. This activity attests to the promise of new life residing within what appears to be destined for death.
We humans, too, have our seasonal process. "Bursts of extravagance" evolve in our inner landscape. A joyful satisfaction emerges when our needs (and sometimes our wants) are met. Life goes extremely well. Then, as quickly as a combine robs a golden, soybean field of its abundance, so does our satisfaction disappear. What we nurtured and tended may be stripped from us by a sudden illness, lost spiritual energy, mental fatigue, a drooping relationship, emotions that push us out of sync, devastating social and world events we feel helpless to change, and by any part of life that flattens our spirit or deprives us of peace.
When we wonder if contentment will ever return, we are like the harvested land without its plenitude. If only we could see this 'stripping" as a time to regenerate the soil of our faith, to revitalize our trust in the Love that never abandons us, to allow our overly-active self to simply rest for a while in a humbled state of non-productivity. Our winter season beckons to us: "Come, go slower, brush the debris from your heart. Empty your mind of its burden of needless information. Look more keenly at your interior life. Discover what waits to be regenerated."
It may be that when we have nothing to show for our efforts to change, when we cannot alter the disturbing conditions of what most concerns us, when we feel fully spent and unable to see the light beyond our personal darkness, it is time to give thanks - to be grateful for the opportunity to regain perspective, to allow restoration of the sources that feed our spiritual energy, to accept the invitation to let go of fretting and resume the posture of relaxing in the Abode of Peace.
Bioluminescence. That's something I had not experienced until this past August. One evening I joined a small group of women in British Columbia to travel by auto in the twilight, across a small island, over wooded hills, past munching deer on roadsides. We arrived at a small beach, flashlights in hand, and walked down a steep incline to settle beside washed-ashore logs. There we waited until darkness fully descended. When it did so, into the water we went, the brave ones out into the cold ocean, the wimpy ones like me wading near the shore. As soon as our bodies moved in the dark water, tiny sparks of light glowed in the waves like fireflies. Zooplankton, miniscule creatures, unseen until they emit a chemical reaction, created the luminescent flashes. What a marvelous moment, looking up toward twinkling stars in the ever-brightening dome of the sky and looking down toward the glowing sparkles in the watery universe below.
Like a child remembering her first Christmas, what I especially recall of this treasured time is when Kathi (our resident 'mermaid') first stepped into the water by a large boulder. She invited us to come to the stone's shadow where the water held the greatest darkness. Kathi swished her hand around in the water and immediately the movement caused it to "bounce" with sprinkles of light. "See," she said, "they're here. It just needs to be dark enough and have some movement to cause them to light up." And thus began my education and a magical evening of seeing starry lights in a totally new realm.
As I continued to ponder the gift of that evening, I thought about Light of another sort that dwells in humanity, a divine presence whose brilliance is vaster than the ocean's depth and the sky's expanse. The tiny sea creatures reminded me that we humans can emit our own Light. Our radiance hides not in ocean waters but in the fluidity of the soul and it, too, is detected through movement of some kind. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of the luminescence from this hidden presence, all as real as little creatures emitting sparks of light in the ocean's darkness.
And what might that "movement" be? Most often it occurs when someone or something stirs our heart or stimulates our mind. A great variety of these "movements" slip into our lives and radiate sparks of divine light. Some of the ways in which I've experienced this have been in a quickening of my heart by the unselfish love in another's words or deeds, a movement of wonder by the surprise of nature's beauty, the quieting of my soul by being in prayerful silence with others, a song bringing deep joy, beholding the mystery of a loved one's final breath, catching the laughter of a friend, and the flash of insight clarifying long-held confusion.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa wisely comments that "we are attracted to other people's goodness" (We are Made for Goodness) When our inner radiance shines forth from the darkness of our unseen self, we become invitations for the secreted Light in others to brighten the world with their presence. Like the night waters, our inner world remains hidden but can be observed through sparks of love, beauty, goodness, wonder, and the selfless service emanating from within us.
Wherever you are today, may the sparks of divine Light be released through the movement of your goodness.
Place your hands over your heart. Move your attention toward your spirit. Slowly go inward until you reach that place deep inside of you where abiding peace dwells, the core of Enduring Love. Hold this peace as you bring to mind the suffering ones of our world, especially those who live in fear of being harmed. Then open your hands and extend them outward, palms up. Send forth the deep peace in the center of your being to these suffering ones.
Place your hands again over your heart. Bring to mind those whose presence, personality, ideas, attitudes or actions create judgmental, hostile or irritating feelings within yourself. Focus on one particular person or a group of people who challenge your ability to love. Open your hands and extend them outward, palms up. With as much true intention as will arise in you, send forth the indwelling peace at the center of your being to this person or group.
Place your hands over your heart once more. Think of those known or unknown who consider you an enemy. Open your hands and extend them outward, palms up. With as much true intention as will arise in you, send forth the deep peace in the center of your being to those who consider you their enemy.
Close with the following prayer:
Peace Bringer, create in me a heart filled with the kind of love that reflects your own. Send this love to those I care about and those I do not. Open my mind to those I want to reject. Open my heart to those I prefer to avoid. May my thoughts, words and deeds be devoid of violence in any form. Soften whatever hardens my heart so that I bring your peace and kindness wherever I go.
Last week I encountered an unusual creature on a forested walking path. I happened to look down and saw a tiny snapping turtle the size of one-third of my palm. I almost stepped on it because the camouflaged, mud-caked shell looked much like dirt on the path. The tiny head and feet were hidden under its shell, which led me to think the turtle was dead. I bent over to carry it to the side of the path. As I lifted it up, a slight movement told me it was scared, not dead. I didn't want the creature to be smashed by a heavy foot or a biker's tire so I laid it down carefully in the grass. After I walked about twenty feet a sudden thought stopped me. I remembered the small creek on our farm. Pregnant snapping turtles would come out of the water and go on land to incubate their eggs. They would dig a hole, lay their eggs and cover them with soil for protection and warmth. I once saw little turtles like the one I found on the path painstakingly making their way down to our creek after hatching. I said to myself, "That little turtle is just trying to find its way to the water."
With this memory I quickly back-tracked and found the lost one, picked it up and carried it a hundred feet to the edge of the lake. An amazing thing took place as I set the turtle down on the sand. At first the hatchling pulled its head and feet in tightly. Then the head slowly came out and pulled upward, as if sniffing the air. The turtle wasn't looking at the water but I soon realized it was actually getting a whiff of the moistness. It sat there for a minute with a puzzled look, then turned toward the water and moved as fast as its tiny feet would go. Into the lake it slipped, quickly out of view. If turtles have an experience of ecstasy that probably best describes the moment it dashed into the water. I loved seeing what happened when that little creature recognized "home."
As I walked away from the lake, I kept smiling about the newly-born turtle's recognition of where it belonged. Metaphors and parallels formed about my inner life. I wondered: Do I know my Source? Am I at Home? How often do I 'sniff the air" and find where my heart belongs? How quickly do I move toward what brings the greatest sense of peace and well-being? I thought of the countless things that distract me from heading toward the Source, toward the One Great Love, where my heart knows it belongs. I pondered what causes me to withdraw like the turtle when I fear what could be challenging or uncertain. Gradually a prayer formed and kept me bonded with the Holy One as I made my way around the rest of the lake:
Source of my life, Home of my spiritual heritage,
pick me up from the path of my fruitless wanderings.
Carry me back to you, the birthplace of loving kindness.
Be tender with my fears. Draw me out if I tend to pull back.
When I get buried in the darkened corridors of uncertainty,
help me emerge from my mud-laden shell of confusion.
Reorient me in the right direction that leads toward you.
Show me time and again how to arrive where I belong.
Encourage me to eagerly seek your presence.
Remind me often that you are my Source and true Home.