Go Deeper On Your Spiritual Journey

What Richard Foster and Dallas Willard were to my generation – prime tour guides to the spiritual life – I hope and believe Carl McColman will be for the next generation. If you don’t know about him and his work, you should. — Brian D. McLaren, author of A Generous Orthodoxy and other books

The Latest from Carl McColman:

Unteachable Lessons: Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught — and Why That’s Okay

We speak of spirituality as a “journey,” which implies not only a destination toward which we travel, but countless adventures encountered along the way. The journey is the destination—both at once. We may all be trying to get to the heart of God, but there are infinite ways to get there.

Can wisdom collected along the pilgrim path even be captured in words, codified into a book? Probably not. And why do the wisest books refuse to offer glib formulas or step-by-step instructions for happiness or enlightenment? Why are the great spiritual classics mostly just an invitation to keep our eyes, ears—and especially hearts—open?

Because we’re often stumbling on miracles while we’re looking for something else.

Using engaging and disarming stories from his own life, Carl McColman, a leading author of books in spirituality, gently leads readers toward a recognition that although the wisdom of the past is worth reading, hearing or reading others’ experience of God is ultimately no substitute for opening our own eyes, ears, and hearts to God.

Carl McColman’s first gift is his commitment to write about things that matter.  His second gift is his ability to write about them with clarity and warmth, enticing his readers to go places with him that we might otherwise not have gone. In Unteachable Lessons he leads us to the brink of lessons no book can teach, then frees us to go forward to learn them, trusting the God who meets us at every step on the unknown way.” — Barbara Brown Taylor, author of Holy Envy

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An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom draws on myth, folklore, poetry, and the tales of Celtic saints and heroes, to explore the spiritual tradition of the Celtic peoples — a tradition rooted in hospitality, love of nature, and a mystical sense of the presence of God. The Celtic way is more important than ever in our increasingly fractured and troubled times. It’s not just for people who have Irish, Scottish or Welsh ancestry — this is a universal wisdom for all people.

An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom is divided into three parts:

Part One: The Celtic Mystery: we begin by exploring the mystery inherent in the Celtic spiritual path with a brief discussion of the three streams of Celtic spirituality and an introduction to core ideas like thin places, holy wells, and “the edge of waiting.”

Part Two: The Celtic Saints: we go deeper by discovering how the faith of the Celtic saints is rooted in the desert spirituality of the early Christian tradition. We look closely at several Celtic saints, including Patrick, Brigid, and Brendan.

Part Three: Walking the Celtic Path: How do we “live” Celtic wisdom in our time? Through ageless values like hospitality, soul-friendship, storytelling, and the quest for the grail, we answer the invitation to make Celtic wisdom our own.

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The Little Book of Christian Mysticism invites you to delve into the writings of the great contemplatives and mystics of the past two thousand years. Featuring over three hundred quotations from great mystics from Biblical times to the present day, The Little Book of Christian Mysticism provides a user-friendly, insightful, and potentially life-changing introduction to the essential teachings of the greatest mystics in the western wisdom traditions, past and present. In this inspirational anthology you’ll find gems of wisdom from Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Howard Thurman, Evelyn Underhill, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich, among many others. Readers can use this book to initiate themselves into this visionary and ecstatic spiritual lineage, and they can also use it as a book of daily meditations. Small enough to fit in one’s pocket or handbag, this is truly a user-friendly introduction to this venerable body of wisdom. Together with Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages and The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, this completes Carl McColman’s trilogy of books celebrating Christian mysticism for our time.

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Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages celebrates the many types of mystics, visionaries, wisdom keepers, and non-dualists whose spiritual insight and perceptive teachings have illuminated the Christian tradition for the past two thousand years. Looking at 108 mystics from Biblical times to the present day, this user-friendly guide shows how the spiritual masters of the western tradition provide a variety of paths into the transforming heart of God. Everyone needs teachers and companions to guide and nurture us in developing rich interior lives — as we seek to respond to the beatifying, deifying love of God. The mystics, whose legacy includes sublime poetry, fascinating autobiographies, and potentially life-changing teachings, can help anyone find greater love, purpose, and a deeper sense of God’s presence. More than just a history book or an encyclopedia, Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages is a curated celebration of western spiritual wisdom, making it accessible for all seekers today.

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Befriending Silence: Discovering the Gifts of Cistercian Spirituality explores the spirituality of Cistercian monasteries, based on Carl’s experience as a Lay Cistercian, under the spiritual guidance of Trappist monks. For centuries the deeply contemplative and mystical spirituality of the monasteries was only accessible to the monks and nuns who devoted their lives to this ancient way of life. But in the years following the Vatican II council, the beautiful spirituality of the Cistercian path, grounded in values such as silence, stability, humility, lifelong conversion, and compassion, has been made available to the entire people of God like never before. In Befriending Silence Carl offers a step-by-step introduction to the beauty and simplicity of the Cistercian way, making this deeply spiritual wisdom tradition accessible to anyone who would like to be inspired to find their own closer walk with God. Each chapter of the book includes questions for personal reflection or group discussion, and a spiritual exercise designed to make the wisdom of the Cistercians come alive for the serious seeker.

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Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path invites you to reflect on the steps anyone can take to begin (or deepen) a regular spiritual practice. Informed by the wisdom of the great Christian mystics, this accessible and user-friendly book illustrates how wisdom from the past can be relevant to seekers today. The mystical life is a life of transformation, and this book celebrates how responding to the desire for a closer sense of God’s presence — the “contemplative call” — means entering into a God-centered process that truly can change us forever. Christian author and activist Brian D. McLaren praised the book, saying “What Frommers, Rick Steves, and Lonely Planet are to travel guides for physical locales, Carl McColman is fast becoming for the spiritual journey. There is so much that recommends this delightful guide — Carl’s own depth of experience, his wonderful ability to bring in apt quotations from the great contemplative saints of history, his ability to be both simple and deep without ever becoming simplistic or murky. As I read, I kept thinking of friends with whom I want to share this treasure — a travel guide to an adventurous journey that will last forever.”

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The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality looks at one of the most misunderstood aspects of Christian spirituality: the mystical tradition, a wisdom lineage which stresses the love of God for humanity created in the Divine image and likeness — a tradition of prayer, meditation and contemplation, in which the mystery of Divine Love leads to the splendor of enlightenment, personal and social transformation, and spiritual joy. But what is mysticism, and why is it not more commonly spoken of in Christian circles? In the 20th century an eminent Catholic theologian named Karl Rahner famously said, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” In The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, author Carl McColman reflects on what Rahner could mean — and how mystical spirituality could be a blessing not just for saints or nuns and monks, but for all Christians, and indeed for anyone interested in profound spiritual transformation. Caroline Myss calls this book “a masterpiece of scholarship and wisdom,” while Anglican author Cynthia Bourgeault calls it “a wise and supportive guidebook for those going deeper on the Christian mystical path… what makes it sing is the authenticity of the author’s own contemplative  journey.”

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Order an autographed copy direct from the author at www.mccolman.net

The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader: Spiritual Lessons from C. S. Lewis’ Narnia celebrates how teaching about the Christian contemplative life is  “encoded” within the pages of one of C. S. Lewis’s most charming books, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (in the beloved Narnia series). Lewis built his illuminating story — of a ship sailing through enchanted waters to the very end of the world — around the key elements of the Christian life: baptism, communion, struggling against injustice and temptation, and (as the story progresses) moving into deeper wisdom teachings centered around the experience of silence, the encounter with darkness, and finally, the breathtaking splendor of enlightenment. Eventually the Dawn Treader sails beyond a place where the stars sing, into a luminous world of wonders presided over by Aslan, the Divine Lover. Carl McColman’s The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader helps readers of all ages to discern the often subtle spiritual teachings found within Lewis’s charming (and deceptively simple) story. Popular Catholic author James Martin, SJ, praises this book and its author: “By turns playful, provocative and profound, McColman asks us to ‘become like little children’ in order to understand some very adult lessons.”

Buy The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader:
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366 Celt: A Year and a Day of Celtic Wisdom and Lore offers the reader a series of daily meditations grounded in Celtic spirituality, written in an inclusive way that can speak to everyone — you don’t have to have Celtic ancestry to enjoy this book. Written in 2004, it represents the culmination of years of study into both Christian and pre-Christian dimensions of Celtic spirituality. The wisdom of the Celts is poetic, mythic, celebratory, and mystical in the best sense of the word. It seamlessly weaves together insights from what the Irish Benedictine monk Seán Ó Duinn calls the “three streams” of neolithic, mythical, and Christian dimensions of wisdom. The result: a truly inclusive, hope-filled, and inspirational series of meditations, rooted in the mysteries of the Spirit, a reverence for nature, and compassion for humanity. This book is written in such a way that it serves beautifully as a daily devotional, but works just as well as an introductory guidebook to Celtic mysticism.

Buy 366 Celt: A Year and a Day of Celtic Wisdom and Lore:
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Order an autographed copy direct from the author at www.mccolman.net

Martin Luther King Jr, the “Arc of the Moral Universe,” and Maintaining Faith in Difficult Times

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

When I thought I would write about Martin Luther King, Jr., that was the first quote that came to mind. Apparently King used this line more than once — a brief Google search reveals he said this in an essay he wrote in 1958, and in a Baccalaureate sermon he preached in 1964. But in the essay, he puts the line in quotation marks, showing that he did not consider this his original thought; indeed, it comes form the ideas of a nineteenth century Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker. There’s an informative post on the “Quote Investigator” website that traces the history of this particular soundbite.

Nelson Mandela has become associated with the lines “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us,” even though they were actually written by Marianne Williamson. In a similar way, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” has become linked in our cultural group mind with Martin Luther King, Jr., even though he didn’t come up with the idea — he just popularized it. But that’s enough for the idea to become “his” in its own way.

But my purpose is not to trace the genealogy of a quotation, but rather to reflect on its merits. On Saturday, Fran and I had brunch with a group of friends that we regularly spend time; they are all people of faith, politically engaged, and great conversationalists — wonderful associates for a morning salon. Fran and I had seen the movie Just Mercy the night before, so naturally our conversation explored questions of criminal justice, racism, the culture of the American south, and our current political divide.

That last matter inspired one man at the table to lament, “When I look at the forces that keep us divided in America today, the situation seems hopeless.” He was referring to how entrenched tribalism has divided the major political parties, with partisan media pundits, the rancor on social media, and competing narratives for how we identify problems in our society and the steps we need to take to fix them. It seems that we are so divided, not only in our values but even in the way we think and the stories we tell each other about the world we live in, that the possibility of actually bringing people together is, well, almost hopeless.

Most of the people around the table disagreed — hopefully we were kind in doing so! I cited “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” and then I told a story about Cynthia Bourgeault, found in her book Love is the Answer, What is the Question?

In her essay “Lines of My Own Composed Above Tintern Abbey, November 11, 2016,” Bourgeault recounts visiting the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey in Wales, made famous by William Wordsworth. She was there at dusk on November 7 — the night before the election in America when Donald Trump upset Hilary Clinton to be elected the 45th president of the USA. Like many people who supported Clinton, Bourgeault saw the possibility of a Trump presidency as a moral disaster — a triumph for racism, for nativism, for the wolf of economic inequality masquerading as the sheep of “pro-business” politics. Meditating on the solemn but sad beauty of the monastic ruins, she thought about how this was a place where the light of prayer shone for centuries, only to be snuffed out by the violence of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. In Bourgeault’s words,

Monks were deposed or slaughtered, the building was sacked and vandalized, its treasures were confiscated for the crown. Three centuries of peaceful and compassionate striving in this ‘school for the Lord’s service’ ended in an orgy of violence.

It might be easy to see these silent ruins as a witness to the triumph of fear over faith, of religious resentment over meditative prayer (of course, others might see it as a triumph of Protestant enlightenment over Catholic superstition, but that would just be the party line of those who perpetrated the violence). But at that moment, Bourgeault received a powerful insight, intuitively coming to her from the very walls of the ruined abbey itself.

Do not look upon us as a destroyed monastery, but as a living transmission. Know that what is forged in the alchemy of love is beyond the ravages of time. All else may dissolve; this alone remains. But in your own transfigured heart, you will always find it.

“I already knew beyond any doubt what the election results would be,” Bourgeault wrote. “My heart ached, but I was at last ready to face it.”

Faith really is “the evidence of things not seen.” It really does support us through those terrible moments when all appears to be lost. It is a reminder that “Love is as strong as death,” but death will someday die, and when it does, only love remains.

This morning as I scanned the Internet trying to understand the history of “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” I was saddened to find a cynical article by liberal pundit Chris Hayes, who flatly declares “The idea that the moral universe inherently bends towards justice is inspiring. It’s also wrong.” According to Hayes, “this story, and the analogy of the long imperceptibly trending line of progress, is wrong. It does not allow for what is perhaps the most significant feature of the story of racial justice in America: backlash and backwards movement. And 50 years after King’s death, that’s the most brutal reality we must confront.”

He supports his cynical view by noting how white supremacism has been an integral part of American culture since its founding, and that many of the gains of the Civil Rights movement have actually been eroded or reversed in recent decades. All of which, of course, is true, and must be addressed by all people of good faith and conscience, regardless of race.

But Hayes’s lack of faith is based on two faulty premises: first that he thinks “the arc of history” is only about America (it’s much bigger than that), and second, that the “bend toward justice” must be smooth and consistent.

As any biologist can tell you, evolution meanders. There are false starts and wrong turns on the long march toward growth and natural progression. What is true biologically is just as true socially or politically.

As Bourgeault could see, it’s hell when we are in those times of “backlash and backwards movement,” whether its violence against monasteries or the ascendency of white supremacism following the election of a racist president. But it is precisely in those times of apparent defeat that we must not lose faith, or hope.

Hayes acknowledges that “Nothing bends towards justice without us bending it.” What he doesn’t see is that if one generation fails, the next generation has the opportunity to clean up the mess. And sooner or later, that happens. The moral arc of the universe is long — which means we can’t expect one generation to solve all our problems, frustrating as that may be. But it bends toward justice precisely because of the good work that people of conscience do in every generation — even when we’re in the minority.

So let’s not lose the hope that the “moral arc” offers us. Let’s remember that it is a long arc, and let’s take up the challenge that it only bends when we do the hard work to make it so. But let’s also remember “the alchemy of love that is beyond the ravages of time.” If we lose today’s battle, tomorrow still offers us hope. And it is that hope that enables us to carry on — and that demands we do so.

Photo Credit: Brian Kraus on Unsplash


The Power of Powerlessness

At the climax of the first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, young Harry meets his nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort, who was functioning like a parasite being hosted in the body of one of Harry’s professors at Hogwarts. Voldemort makes the following declaration of his philosophy of life:

There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.

Harry rejects this philosophy — and so should we all. It’s only the beginning of a seven-year-long struggle between the malevolent Voldemort and the principled Harry, who unlike his adversary very much believes in good and evil.

I’m afraid, however, that Voldemort’s amoral philosophy regarding good, evil, and power is not unique to him. A more succinct way of describing Voldemort’s philosophy is simply this: might makes right.

There’s a cynical little joke that goes, “Where does a 900-pound gorilla sit?” The answer: “Anywhere he wants.” The punchline gets its “punch” from a recognition that power affords privilege: if I am strong enough, mean enough, wealthy enough, influential enough, or even just attractive enough, I can more easily do what I want. That’s how the world works.

And those of us who aren’t rich, strong, mean, etc.? We are among those Voldemort contemptuously dismisses as “too weak to seek” power for ourselves.

Later in the Harry Potter books we learn that Voldemort is sociopathic — he has no friends, and only relates to people in instrumental ways: if someone is useful to him, he will seek to gain what he can from them; once a person is no longer useful, that can be disposed of — as Professor Snape learns toward the end of the final volume.

The moral of the Voldemort story seems to be this: that if a person orients their life only to power, they will sacrifice everything else — including love.

The Paradox of Powerlessness

And while Voldemort, the character, no doubt truly believed that the world only functioned in terms of power and the lack thereof, the world we live in clearly reveals that, paradoxical though it may seem, sometimes powerlessness is in its way truly powerful.

Another great fantasy epic — J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings — demonstrates this well. In the movie version of the first part of the story, The Fellowship of the Ring, a council of elves, dwarves and humans determine that the One Ring of Power must be destroyed, by taking it back to fires of the volcano in Mordor where it was originally forged by the evil lord Sauron. The warrior Boromir scoffs at this plan. “One does not simply walk into Mordor. It’s Black Gates are guarded by more than just Orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep, and the Great Eye is ever-watchful. It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire and ash and dust. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly.”

But of course, the story of the destruction of the One Ring is not about ten thousand men storming the gates of Mordor. It is about a small group of pilgrims, eventually reduced to just a couple of hobbits — diminutive creatures, who by all ordinary standard are the epitome of powerlessness — who by their very littleness manage to get the ring destroyed, and thereby save Middle-Earth.

This is something that the Voldemorts of the world simply cannot grasp. And yet it is central not only to Christian spirituality, but indeed to all forms of contemplative practice.

When Saint Paul writes to the Corinthians, he talks about a “thorn in his flesh” — some sort of affliction, the exact nature of which he never reveals, but we can assume that this problem, whether physical or psychological in nature, seemed to be a weakness to him. He writes,

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power[c] is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (II Corinthians 12:8-10)

Paradoxical language, this. “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” This doesn’t sound like the kind of thinking that wins sporting events or military campaigns — but it does represent a spiritual approach to things that understands there is more to life than always being top dog. The weakness that is strong: a powerlessness that is powerful — to contemplatives, this is the virtue of humility, the recognition that in our vulnerability we create the space in our hearts for a Divine power over which we have no control to direct the course of our lives.

Powerless Possibilities

It is this Divine power, made present in our human powerlessness, that makes it possible for us to truly love — and be loved. It is this Divine power, made present in our vulnerability, that makes it possible for us to age gracefully and die peacefully. It is this Divine power, made present in our wounded and broken lives, that enables us to be a force for healing and reconciliation in the lives of others — building community, not through domination, but through tenderness and mercy and forgiveness.

Contemplative practice emphasizes silence, and attentiveness, and unknowing, and wondering. It’s not about exercising our earthly power, but actually about surrendering our power in the interest of allowing God’s power to work through us. But it must be a real surrender, which means that, paradoxically, it feels like dying. “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” “I live now, not I, but Christ in me.” This is profoundly countercultural, especially given our cultural emphasis on politics and power. Might makes right, alas, is alive in well in most of our secular institutions (and it even shows up far too often in our religious institutions as well). But we do not have to choose the path of Voldemort. We can align ourselves with the little and vulnerable ones — like Harry Potter or the hobbits. We can choose love first — not to reject all power, but always to keep our earthly power subject to the demands of love. For then, whenever we are weak, in Christ we are strong.

“Blessed are the Peacemakers” — Jesus Said It, and It Still Applies Today

A couple of days ago in a dream I was instructed to write about “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” At first I put it off, because it’s such a huge topic and I’m not sure how qualified I am to write about it.

But then today, while working on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, I had the task of meditating on the Beatitudes. So it seems that I need to go ahead and listen to my dream and reflect on Matthew 5:9:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

It’s the seventh of nine Beatitudes — pithy teachings Jesus offered in his famous Sermon on the Mount, all of which began “Blessed are…” The Greek word for “blessed,” makarios, carries the sense of “Happy” or “Fortunate” — so you could render this verse like this:

When you work for peace, it makes you happy — and people will recognize you as a child of God.

First of all: notice how non-aggressive this teaching is. Jesus doesn’t say, “You’d better work for peace or else you don’t get to be a child of God.” Not at all. There’s no hostility in his teaching (so he models exactly how we are called to be). Peacemaking is something other than aggression or hostility or attacking.

But make no mistake: Jesus may be teaching peacefully, but he is not being a wimp here. By telling us that peacemakers are blessed, he is making it clear that, for Christians, there is no other option. We want to be children of God — and peacemaking is the way we must walk.

Being a Peacemaking in a World Filled with Conflict

I come from a military family. My father was an air force pilot and my brother spent a number of years serving in the navy. I think it’s important when we consider Jesus’s teaching on peacemaking, is not to simply settle for being aggressive or hostile toward those who serve in the military, or even toward our political leaders who promote “hawkish” solutions to international conflicts.

Being a peacemaker means actively working to find alternatives to aggression or hostility. And that extends even toward those who may be our political opponents.

I’m not a politician or a soldier myself, and I recognize that very few people are in a position to be “peacemakers” in the global sense of working to end, or prevent, military conflict. If someone who is reading this blog is in that kind of position of authority and power, I hope that you are seriously reflecting on Jesus’s challenge to you. Be a peacemaker. That doesn’t mean we surrender American interests or capitulate to those who wish us harm. But it does mean that we make strategic choices always with an eye toward how we can best preserve or restore peace, even if that is not going to happen today or tomorrow.

But I want to address this blog post to the vast majority of people who are not in positions of public or military leadership. How are we ordinary folks called to be “peacemakers”? What is it that Christ expects of us?

Certainly there is a place for being politically engaged, and I would encourage anyone who has a sense of the importance of peacemaking, to communicate your concerns to your elected representatives in congress and to the president. But as I write these words, I’m aware that, in a democracy, people of good will nevertheless come to different conclusions about the best way to promote peace.

Once again, it’s important to meet those with whom we disagree, without aggression or hostility. The minute we indulge in aggressive behavior — whether it’s name-calling, shaming, or any other kind of discourse that is designed to attack the other side rather than to promote our own beliefs — we have stopped being peacemakers.

When Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he didn’t say “You pacifists need to grind the other side into the ground.” It is vitally important that we remember this.

Bringing Peace Down to Earth (and In Our Neighborhoods)

I think for many of us, peacemaking might begin not in the arena of political conflict (let alone military operations), but in a place much closer to home.

We need to make peace with ourselves.

We need to make peace with our family and friends.

We need to make peace with God.

We need to make peace in any situation where there is hostility or agression or attacking present. We especially need to make peace in those situations where we are the ones doing the aggression or attacking, but we also need to develop skills to learn to how defuse or de-escalate situations where others are behaving aggressively or with hostility toward us.

None of this is easy. If you are like me, you did not get any education in peacemaking, or reconciliation, or conflict resolution, when you were in school. Many of us need the help of family therapists or life coaches or spiritual advisors in order to learn how to move from aggression to peacemaking.

But it’s vital that we learn to do this. If you are a follower of Jesus, it’s not optional. This is who we are called to be.

But even if you are not a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, I hope you will recognize that, beginning on an interpersonal/local level, human beings learning how to relate to others without hostility or aggression is pretty much an essential task of we want a society worth living in.

This means we have to learn how to deal with bullies, how to defend ourselves from the aggression of others (especially those with more power than we possess), and how to trust in solutions to conflict that do not involve attacking or displays of force (whether psychological or actual).

If we are the bullies, then we have a huge task to undertake. We have to learn how to surrender our own addiction to force, to privilege, and to aggression. Which is never easy, but is essential for anyone who wants to be in alignment with true spiritual wisdom (including, but not limited to, the way of Jesus).

Most people have a clear sense that we live in a society that seems to be increasingly fragmented, polarized, and divided. Nothing will stand still. If we fail to make peacemaking a priority, our society will simply continue to drift toward violence. But if enough of us do make a commitment to peacemaking — on the local level, even before worrying about global problems — then we have a chance of restoring the kind of society we all want to live in: a society where everyone has dignity just by virtue of being human, and that we all deserve a fair shake at creating (together) a community that serves the common good, rather than just the interests of those with the most power.

Let’s commit to do this… together.

White Supremacists use the Celtic Cross as a Symbol of Hate. But True Celtic Spirituality is Anti-Racist.

According to the Anti-Defamation League’s website, the Celtic Cross — particularly when rendered as an equal-armed cross — is used by white supremacists as a symbol of their racist beliefs.

The website says:

The white supremacist version of the Celtic Cross, which consists of a square cross interlocking with or surrounded by a circle, is one of the most important and commonly used white supremacist symbols.1https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/celtic-cross

This boggles my mind. And it breaks my heart.

As someone who is profoundly opposed to racism while also very much in love with Celtic spirituality, it both saddens and angers me that there are hate-filled people who co-opt what should be universally recognized as a symbol of love and unity.

The Celtic “Wheel Cross” similar to the symbol used by white supremacists.

The equal-armed Celtic cross, according to Wikimedia Commons, “was used by the National Socialist (NSDAP/Nazi) government of Germany or an organization closely associated to it, or another party which has been banned by the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany. The use of insignia of organizations that have been banned in Germany (like the Nazi swastika or the arrow cross) are also illegal in Austria, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, France, Brazil, Israel, Ukraine, Russia and other countries, depending on context.”2https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Celtic-cross.png

Why Would a Celtic Cross Be a Symbol of Hatred?

Just the fact that the equal-armed Celtic Cross was co-opted by the Nazi party of Germany is reason enough why it represents racism and white supremacism to some people. But it is worth looking at how some white supremacists misunderstand Celtic spirituality (and northern European spirituality in general) to understand why this symbol gets mis-used.

In 1995, cultural critic Noel Ignatiev published a book with a provocative title: How the Irish Became White. It explores issues related to social privilege and the immigrant experience of 19th century Irish expatriates who discovered that, in the new world, they could assimilate into “white” society and enjoy the kind of privilege that was denied to people of color.

It’s not meant to be a book to attack the Irish — any group that might find an opportunity for social privilege in a new homeland would naturally take it. Rather, it’s a book about the evils of racism and social privilege in general. The experience of anti-Irish prejudice, especially in Europe, is a reminder that social privilege isn’t always a matter of race. The English and the Irish are both caucasian, yet for centuries the Irish were denied the kind of privilege in the British Isles that the English enjoyed.

All this is a backdrop to the unhappy fact that some white supremacists, in America and elsewhere, look to northern European cultures as their idealized notion of a “good” society. Scandinavia, Germany, and the Celtic lands of Ireland and Scotland all symbolize, in the racist mind, what they believe society “should” look like. Of course, nowadays northern Europe is just as racially diverse as any part of the industrialized world; but racists and white supremacists trade in a kind of fantasy-nostalgia. They are not interested in the way things are, but rather in how they imagines things used to be. And they imagine that, once upon a time, the Celts were “racially pure” — just like the Germans and the Scandinavians.

This spills over into a romanticized view of the spiritual heritage of these lands. The indigenous pagan spiritualities of northern Europe — the pagan religions associated with Norse or Celtic mythology —  have in particular become attractive to white supremacists. Such pagan religions are seen as promoting a kind of tribal identity that is racially embedded in “whiteness.”

Unfortunately, it’s a short leap from “this spirituality is for people like me” to “this spirituality is only for people like me.” And so it’s no surprise that symbolism associated with Norse and Celtic paganism — from Thor’s hammer to runes to the Celtic Cross — all show up on the ADL website as symbols of racism and white supremacism.

The Truth About Celtic Spirituality

It is true that Celtic spirituality emerges from the history of a caucasian ethnic group: the Celts. But there is no inherent Celtic idea or teaching that promotes racism or white supremacism.

In fact, the opposite is the case: Celtic spirituality emphasizes hospitality, kindness to strangers, honor, peacemaking, and reverence for nature — all values that undermine racism rather than promote it.

This is especially true in terms of Celtic Christianity, where indigenous Celtic spirituality interweaves with the universalizing principles of the Christian faith. But even Celtic paganism has nothing in it that is inherently racist.

It breaks my heart that misguided people who have chosen to hate, sometimes use symbols associated with Celtic spirituality to promote their toxic worldview. It is important to understand that Celtic symbolism can be misused in this way. But it is just as important to understand that the Celtic heart is not racist. Anyone who truly seeks to follow the wisdom way of the Celtic peoples will find that it leads not to racism or “white identity,” but to values that actually are anti-racist: values like kindness, hospitality, and compassion. Those are the true Celtic values.


Kindness, Cynicism, and a Better World: A Contemplative Approach to Social Media — and Digital Civility

I don’t think it’s very shocking to acknowledge that we live in a cynical1I don’t mean “cynical” in the classical philosophical sense, but in the contemporary, popular understanding of “predisposed to assume the worst in others.” world.

We have learned, especially over the last fifty years, to take pretty much everything our political and cultural leaders say with a hefty grain of salt. In the 1960s, it was fashionable for young people to say, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Of course, those same young people — if they lived long enough — soon were over thirty themselves! So perhaps an entire generation learned that trust simply wasn’t a value worth cultivating.

Meanwhile, in the academic world you find the idea of “the hermeneutics of suspicion” along with the concept of “deconstruction.” These are two examples of philosophical approaches to human knowledge that emphasize an attitude of skepticism that characterizes the quest for human knowing. Every text, every book, every philosophy or meaning system, are suspect: they can contain encoded ideas that are racist, sexist, classist, or otherwise harmful to some segments of the human population. Don’t get me wrong: I applaud efforts to understand our cultural blind spots and to learn to identify ways in which human beings exclude and oppress one another.

But my point is this: in our quest to be more “suspicious” of our cultural blind spots and to “deconstruct” our unconscious systems of privilege, have we actually created an entirely new way of thinking that is based so totally on skepticism and mistrust that we have unwittingly become slaves to cynicism?

I think we have. In fact, I believe we have become so cynical, so negative in our habitual way of thinking, that many of us have forgotten that it is possible to relate to others in a spirit of trust and goodwill.

The Spirit of Suspicion in Social Media

Recently this was brought home to me when I read a fascinating article on foreign attempts to influence our society through social media disinformation. The article, found by Darren Linvill & Patrick Warren, has the attention-grabbing title “That Uplifting Tweet You Just Shared? A Russian Troll Sent It.” If you haven’t read it, please click on this link and do so.

Linvill & Warren are professors at Clemson who study the behavior of Russian and other foreign “trolls” who work to spread harmful ideas through Twitter and other social media outlets. They point out that the masters of disinformation work very subtly and target Americans of all political and social identities. They are too clever to just harangue us with blatant political dog-whistles. No, the expert disinformation-mongers work hard to earn our trust by posting “nice” or inspiring tweets, but eventually they begin to circulate tweets that have subtle negative messages. For example, one such account, which aimed its tweets at liberal urban Americans, circulated the following statement:

“My cousin is studying sociology in university. Last week she and her classmates polled over 1,000 conservative Christians. ‘What would you do if you discovered that your child was a homo sapiens?’ 55% said they would disown them and force them to leave their home.”

Linvill and Warren note that the statement points to an old urban legend, with no basis in fact. But since the tweet was aimed at people who are already disposed to think that conservative Christians are bigoted and uneducated, it had the effect of confirming their cynical views. The authors go on to say,

This tweet, which suggested conservative Christians are not only homophobic but also ignorant, was subtle enough to not feel overtly hateful, but was also aimed directly at multiple cultural stress points, driving a wedge at the point where religiosity and ideology meet. The tweet was also wildly successful, receiving more than 90,000 retweets and nearly 300,000 likes.

If you’re a conservative, don’t get smug here. The Russian trolls send out plenty of tweets aimed at you: tweets that are designed to make you feel more cynically superior to all those dumb liberal snowflakes.

Linvill and Warren point out that the cumulative result of these cynical tweets is to encourage Americans to mistrust one another — and to mistrust our public  institutions. In other words, the trolls are simply trying to undermine the very fabric of democratic society — from within.

And we are letting them — because we are so enamored of our cynical rejection of one another.

A Contemplative Response

It is a mark of human intelligence that we learn to question the motives of others, especially those who we have good reason not to trust. “Let the buyer beware” is a rock-solid piece of good common sense. In politics, in foreign policy, in business (especially high-stakes or competitive fields), it is necessary that we carefully examine any ideas or opinions that we do not know for a fact is reliable.

But as Linvill and Warren point out, we are not always very good at smelling a rat. Have we learned to question everything except for the voice that tells us we should question everything?

Linvill and Warren end their article by calling for “digital civility” — they don’t define this term, but I think that we can fill in the gaps ourselves.

Digital civility, it seems to me, should begin with these principles:

  • Only post, or share, statements that serve to build up our community and society, rather than to tear it down. Think about Thumper: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” But even more than “nice,” let’s emphasize sharing ideas that bring us together, rather than divides us.
  • Before you accept a statement that criticizes another group of people, verify that it is more than just hearsay (no more “My cousin is…” — look for references to real news outlets or real researchers who can be independently verified).
  • Be mindful of how the material you read online makes you feel. If a statement makes you angry or frightened or fills you with disgust, it’s worth double checking. Yes, we need to be aware of the bad news that really happens. But we also need to protect ourselves against negative disinformation.

Why do I call this a “contemplative” response? Because I believe that a contemplative approach to life is one that listens first, discerns carefully, accepts ambiguity, takes time before acting or reacting, and seeks the common good before just promoting its own viewpoint.

Perhaps part of the reason why disinformation tweets (like the one quoted above) get tens of thousands of retweets is because, in our rush toward a more cynical way of seeing things, we have forgotten how to listen and how to discern. Learning a more contemplative approach to life can help us to restore these essential skills.

Unfortunately, the people who want to harm our society are delighted by how polarized we have become and how much animosity we hold toward one another. We have got to find a way to restore a basic willingness to affirm the humanity of our neighbors and fellow citizens, even when we strongly disagree about things. If our society continues to erode, the likelihood of civil unrest will only increase. This is a scenario none of us want. So we all have to work together to create a more humane, civil, and — I believe — contemplative future.

Some Thoughts on the Roaring 20s — for 2020 (and Beyond)

I’m writing this on the second day of January 2020 — and I’m mindful of an amusing meme that made its way around Facebook last week. By the time you are reading this, it will be a stale joke, but imagine you saw this on December 26, 2019, and perhaps you can appreciate the humor.

And of course, as I scrolled through Facebook to find this one image, I had to wade through all the various announcements for “Roaring Twenties” New Years Eve Parties that took place on 12/31/2019.

Why are we so in love with the 1920s?

Maybe a better question: what is there not to love about that decade!? It was the jazz age— the age of flappers and the Charleston, of The Great Gatsby and Downton Abbey, of Art Deco and women’s suffrage. The 20s was the heyday of Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe; of Louis Armstrong and George Gershwin, of Babe Ruth and Coco Chanel and Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. Virginia Woolf was smoking cigars while T.S. Eliot mused on the wasteland. On top of all these cultural riches, the economy was booming… at least, until it wasn’t.

It was also the time when Evelyn Underhill was widely respected as a modern day authority on mysticism, while Pierre Teilhard de Chardin went off to China where he celebrated the “Mass on the World” later immortalized in his Hymn of the Universe — so while it may not be a decade we think of as a hotbed of contemplative activity, nevertheless we can see that the Spirit was up to some cool stuff. During the roaring 20s, Thomas Keating was born, Edith Stein was baptized, and C. S. Lewis abandoned atheism for a meaningful, living faith in God. Howard Thurman went to seminary, and met the Quaker mystic Rufus Jones who became one of his mentors.

Moral of the story: even in the midst of a big fat secular party decade, some deeply transformational spiritual stuff just might be going on — even though it might not bear fruit for years to come.

If C. S. Lewis hadn’t said “Yes” to God in 1929, we would in all likelihood never have been brought to the wonders of Narnia. Without Thurman’s hard work as a seminarian in the 20s, his career might have taken him on a path other than becoming the spiritual godfather of the American Civil Rights movement. Without Edith Stein’s carefully reasoned conversion, mystical classics such as The Science of the Cross might never have been written.

It’s always so tempting to isolate key moments in our lives — or in the lives of people we admire. I do it myself — I continue to emphasize February 5, 1977 as if that one date is the only one where God ever bothered to love me! Then there’s Julian of Norwich (although,  to be fair, no one knows if her “special” date was May 8 or 13, 1373). Likewise, so many Merton fans pay particular attention to “special” dates in his life (like March 18, 1958) that after a while you might begin to think that contemplation is really only about the “peak experiences.”

But that’s just not how contemplation rolls.

At Thomas Merton Square in Louisville, KY in 2014 (when I still had a furry face).

Yes, sometimes we have particular days or moments in our lives that are singularly meaningful. That’s what happened to me in 1977, and I suppose many people can report something similar from their childhood or adolescent years. But my spiritual awakening wouldn’t be worth the electrons this webpage is printed on, if I didn’t follow it up with a lifetime of saying “Yes” (some years more fervently than others) to the Spirit. On the other hand, let’s never forget that the mind-expanding epiphany that Merton experienced on 3/18/58 only came about after he had been praying daily at the monastery for over sixteen years!

So when I sit and think about the Roaring 20s, I don’t think about all the spiritual fervent that rocked American society like it did in the 1960s or 1970s. But I do remember that people were praying, and living, and writing, and reflecting, in ways that would impact others for years to come.

Which brings me to today. I’m writing this on January 2, 2020, and it’s my first blog post for the new “Roaring 20s.” Living in a time when there is so much political division, partisan anger, suspicion toward religious institutions, and mainstream skepticism toward spirituality or mysticism, it would be easy to get cynical about the moment we find ourselves in. Forty-nine years ago this week, George Harrison’s interspiritual anthem, “My Sweet Lord” was a number one hit, receiving near-constant airplay. Would such an unabashedly idealistic love song to God be a #1 hit record today? I really doubt it, and that, frankly, breaks my heart.

But the point of this post is not to get cynical or discouraged, if the moment we find ourselves in tends to “roar” more than “contemplate.” Make no mistake: I’m all for sustainable economic growth, for cultural expression, for the flowering of literature and music and dance and fashion. I love the roaring twenties, and I hope this new decade will “roar” too.

Of course, I’d like to see us dodge some of the shadow sides of a century ago: we could do without the stock market crash of 1929, the great depression, or the rise of fascism and Nazism. History does repeat itself for those who fail to heed its lessons, so let us all work together to learn the lessons the 20s, so that this time around we can do things better.

But back to contemplation. When it seems like not very many people are interested in such things as meditation or contemplation or deep interior work, it is incumbent upon those of us who are interested in these things to persevere, even if in relative solitude. After all, the choices we make, the communities we form, the books we write, and the love we generate, all will bear meaningful spiritual fruit — even if not for years to come. But eventually the blossoms will come; the fruit will be borne.

So, may the 2020s roar! May we all embrace the best of culture and prosperity that our society can offer us. And for those of us we sense we are called not just to roar, but to be silent, to listen within for the still small voice of the Divine, let’s be sure to do that as well. After all, we have no idea what adventures in the Spirit await us — tomorrow, next year or even four decades from now.

I trust the adventure will be worth it.


How the Beatles Help Me Overcome Writer’s Block

I suppose most writers don’t like to talk about writers’ block. It’s not a pretty sight — to have a deadline looming, and every time you sit down at the blank screen, you just get lost in the void of it all.

And instead of writing… nothing.

It’s such an ominous part of the writer’s life that you can find lists online of movies devoted to the topic. I can think of two off the top of my head: Shakespeare in Love and Ruby Sparks. Both are humorous stories, and in each film, the writer — who is male — finds his creative spark restored through the influence of a beautiful female muse (what critics have called “the manic pixie dream girl”).

Okay, not all writers are men, and certainly not every artist (writer or otherwise) is going to get their own personal muse to help magically jump-start their creative flow. Sorry about that. For most of us, we need to find a more realistic, down-to-earth solution to our lack of inspiration.

The other day I was chatting with a friend about the challenges of writer’s block. He pointed out to me that it often seems to be related to perfectionism. I nodded my head in agreement. It’s not merely not having an idea (although sometimes that’s the case), but it’s also the fear that, whatever words I do manage to put down to my file (or paper) will simply not be very good. People who read it will find out the terrible truth: that I’m just a “lousy writer!”

Such catastrophizing is a giveaway that what is really at work here is perfectionism: that nasty thought, lodged deep in our skulls, that our work must be perfect to have any value at all.

Yecch. It looks really irrational, in plain black and white. So why is it such a hard notion to liberate ourselves from?

Perfectionism is really lazy way of looking at the world: it’s an insistence that everything is black or white, good or bad, perfect or lousy, with nothing in between. It ignores the radiant beauty of a world filled with literally millions of colors.

(A lot of people like to say that the antidote to seeing things in black and white is to learn to know the “shades of grey.” But I think even that is too limiting. What makes life sparkle is not 32 layers of greyscale, but an almost infinite array of eye-nurturing color.)

I think one of perfectionism’s nasty little tricks is to always compare ourselves (unfavorably, of course) with the writers or other artists whom we admire. How can I ever amount to anything as a writer, when my work is so lackluster compared to the shimmering genius of ________? (fill in the blank with your favorite writer).

But I think we can beat the inner-perfectionist at his or her own game. And I realized this by thinking about one of my favorite bands, the Beatles.

It’s been nearly fifty years since the Beatles disbanded in an acrimonious split — but they are still the top-selling pop music group of all time. None of them were yet 30 years old, and their entire recorded output consisted of just under ten hours of music. Some of their songs have become truly iconic: “Yesterday,” “In My Life,” “Hey Jude,” “All You Need is Love” “Let it Be,” “Come Together,” “Something,” — just to name a few. The Beatles featured not one, not two, but three brilliant songwriters; when they split up, every member of the band went on to enjoy a successful solo career. The two surviving Beatles, both in their late seventies, are still going strong as we approach the 60th anniversary of the band’s founding.

It’s reasonable to say the Beatles were geniuses.

I’m not a songwriter, but the perfectionist in me has no scruples about comparing my lack-of-genius to the geniuses of another art form. But that road goes both ways. And by thinking about the creative work of brilliant songwriters like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, ironically I can find a way to talk back to my inner perfectionist.

Here’s what occurred to me the other day. I was listening to The White Album — a brilliant recording, to be sure, but notoriously uneven. There are plenty of tracks on this album, released in 1968, that were experimental, or avant-garde, or just plain weird. Don’t take my word for it — cue up Spotify and listen to tracks like “Wild Honey Pie,” “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” or “Revolution #9.”

In other words, geniuses aren’t perfect. And if they don’t have to be perfect, why should you and I be?

Pushing this line of thought a bit further, I thought about the Beatles’ all-time most celebrated song, “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s an artsy song, featuring a symphony orchestra and impressionistic lyrics in which John Lennon’s almost cynical commentary on the daily news is punctuated by Paul McCartney’s playful narrative of a worker’s mundane morning routine. It wasn’t a hit song like “Hey Jude” or “She Loves You,” but it still sounds fresh and relevant after more than fifty years; and the song seems to epitomize the critical consensus about Beatles music: that Lennon and McCartney were each great songwriters on their own, but when they composed a song together, they truly were far, far more than the sum of their parts.

Genius, right?

But before your inner perfectionist gets all worked up… compare that to the Beatles’ first-ever hit single, a surprisingly modest number recorded in 1962: “Love Me Do.” It’s a mid-tempo rock and roll love song, with lyrics that could easily be dismissed as banal; aside from a sassy harmonica line played by Lennon, it’s actually a fairly ordinary song.

But it was a hit song for the Beatles, and nearly sixty years later, Paul McCartney still regularly performs it live. It’s charming to watch a video recording of McCartney at Dodger Stadium in 2019, introducing the song and admitting that he was so nervous when recording it (at barely 20 years old), that you can clearly hear the quavering in his voice.

It’s not the song he’ll be remembered for: it’s not “Yesterday” or “Let it Be” or “Penny Lane.” But it was good enough.

And that’s the key: good enough.

“Love Me Do” was good enough for the Beatles to have a hit record in 1962, and it’s good enough for Paul McCartney to keep it in his setlist in 2019. But nobody would accuse it of being a perfect song.

It’s not — because it doesn’t have to be. It’s good enough, and that’s good enough.

The next time I experience writer’s block, I’m going to listen to “Love Me Do” — and maybe even see if I can manage to get all the way through “Revolution #9.” Since I can forgive the Beatles for releasing a song as bad as “Wild Honey Pie,” and appreciate them for a run-of-the-mill song like “Love Me Do,” then I can certainly give myself permission to engage in my own writing in a less-than-perfect way.

Now, in 1962, the Beatles probably were not even capable of writing masterpieces like “Come Together” or “Hey Jude.” At least, not yet. Those songs were the result of years of practice and performance and hard work in the studio. But what if, in 1962, the “perfectionist” inside Lennon’s and McCartney’s heads wouldn’t give them any peace because all they could manage was something like “Love Me Do”?

They might have given up. And the world would be so much the poorer for it.

So the next time you have a little conversation with your inner perfectionist, listen to the Beatles. And tell your perfectionist that maybe all you’re capable of doing is writing something about as good as “Love Me Do.” But that’s good enough. By doing your “good enough” best today, maybe tomorrow — or next year, or 10 years from now — you really could create a work of genius. If the Beatles could grow into it, why not you? But that’s for the future. No pressure to be a genius today. For today, just do the best you can.

And that will be good enough — God be praised.


A Few Thoughts on the Passing of Ram Dass

Ram Dass, author of many books including the spiritual masterpiece Be Here Now, has died. He passed away yesterday, 22 December 2019, at his home in Maui. He was 88 years old.

I never met Ram Dass, or even saw him in person. My friend Mirabai Starr knew him well, so she would be in a much better position to offer a meaningful encomium. My purpose in writing about him is modest: I simply want to appreciate how he made an impact on my life and my spiritual journey, merely through his writing, his life story, and the bibliography of his most celebrated book.

As someone who grew up in a straight-laced, southern suburban home, as a child my exposure to spirituality didn’t extend much beyond Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. Perhaps the first real hint I had that there was an entire world of spirituality “out there” was when the Beatles ran off to India to study meditation with the Maharishi. That came a bit closer to home for me when I fell in love with prog-rock, and discovered that the band Yes drew inspiration for their proggiest album, Tales from Topographic Oceans, from Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. I read Yogananda’s memoir while I was still in high school, and it opened up the possibility that I could find spiritual meaning in religious traditions far beyond my own. In other words, it made interspirituality possible to me.

From there I discovered Edgar Cayce, Carlos Castaneda, Alan Watts, and various other writers and teachers who were associated with alternative spirituality (at least, alternative to the Lutheran/charismatic spirituality that was my home base). By the time I was a freshman in college, I was hungry to learn about spirituality in almost any form I could find it.

I cannot remember when Be Here Now first fell into my hands. I’m not sure if someone recommended it to me or if I picked it up myself in a bookshop somewhere. I do remember that it used to sell for the unusual price of only $3.33 (nowadays it still has a funky price point, I think the latest printing lists for $17.17). But when I first got my hands on it, it opened up a wonderful, and perhaps even playful, look into the world of eastern spirituality — granted, eastern spirituality as seen through western eyes, but meaningful nevertheless.

It’s a nonlinear book to be sure — perhaps my favorite nonlinear book outside of Elias Marechal’s masterful Tears of an Innocent God. And while it is so deeply informed by the culture and literature of India that I suppose it should be called a book of “eastern” mysticism, on any one page you’re just as likely to find a quote from Jesus or Teresa of Ávila as from Ramakrishna or Ramana Maharshi. But more on that later.

The entire middle section, printed on a coarse dark brown paper, read like an extended meditation on a colorful, psychedelic spiritual journey. But what impacted me the most was the autobiographical section at the beginning of the book, and the bibliography.

I loved Ram Dass’s life story because he had begun his journey as Richard Alpert, straight-laced Harvard psychologist who, as a colleague of the notorious Timothy Leary, was one of the early high-profile researchers into the therapeutic and spiritual applications of LSD. But where Leary became a celebrated (or notorious, depending on your viewpoint) advocate of hallucinogenic spirituality, Alpert turned to the east — and took his new name and identity when he realized that the spiritual masters of India could take him much further than psychedelic drugs ever could.

Reading this was tremendously validating. I had my own profound spiritual awakening at the age of 16 (while at a Lutheran youth retreat; who would have guessed?). At a later date, I briefly experimented with both LSD and psilocybin mushrooms — mostly out of curiosity. While I found psychedelics to be beautiful and the high was enjoyable, I was left with the conviction that, at least based on my experience, drugs simply could not match what the direct action of the Holy Spirit could provide.

So it was incredibly meaningful for me to have a renowned scientist in the drug world affirm pretty much what I had experienced. It probably also saved me from getting any further involved in hallucinogenics. (For the record, I am completely in favor of responsible research into both therapeutic and spiritual uses of hallucinogens, especially in dealing with issues like addiction or fear of death — but I also think that most people with a disciplined commitment to meditation and personal growth simply do not need drugs to get from here to there.)

But the other treasure for me was the bibliography in Be Here Now. And what a bibliography it is! Filled with spiritual books both renowned and obscure, it’s as colorful a collection of books as you might expect from an authority on psychedelic mysticism. It’s winsomely divided into sections with titles like: “Books to Hang Out With,” “Books to Visit With Now & Then,” and “Books It’s Useful to Have Met.”

But what really won me over was the inclusion of books by (or about) Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Teilhard de Chardin, Jacob Boehme, William Law, Nicholas of Cusa, Francis de Sales, The Cloud of UnknowingThe Philokalia, and The Way of a Pilgrim. Even though there are some omissions, all in all it suggests that Ram Dass knew his way around the Christian mystics as well as the great spiritual teachers of the east.

Not only did that make me admire him all the more, but it also helped me to understand that interspirituality really is a two-way street: it’s not just about what I, as a Christian, can learn from other traditions, but it’s also about how the wisdom seekers of other traditions can be blessed by the mystical tradition that I call home.

I am sorry that Ram Dass has died, but he lived a good long life to the age of 88, so I trust that he was fully ready to dance in the light. For my part, I’ll always consider Be Here Now as definitely a book to hang out with. My life is richer for having “met” it.

A Hidden Life: Terrence Malick’s Heartbreaking, Essential, Contemplative Film

Terrence Malick is arguably the most contemplative director working in Hollywood today. Films like The Tree of Life and To The Wonder invite the viewer into Malick’s unique and perhaps idiosyncratic vision, combining strikingly beautiful cinematography with an impressionistic approach to the film’s story, resulting in an almost dreamlike narrative arc. Malick’s films don’t seem to tell stories so much as to invite the viewer into the middle of them.

His work has been described as “sacramental” and now here I’m calling him “contemplative,” but I think it’s worth mentioning that not everyone recognizes Malick as a genius. Some critics dismiss his films as self-indulgent, meandering, and pointless. Others suggest his work is uneven (I would concur: of the two movies I mentioned, I think The Tree of Life is a masterpiece while To the Wonder is, at best, an interesting failure). While I love the ethereal feel of Malick’s films, I must confess to sometimes feeling frustrated by what can feel like a self-conscious artsiness that obscures the tale he attempts to tell.

With all this in mind, I was cautiously hopeful about his latest film, A Hidden Life, which recounts the story of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian martyr whose refusal to sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler led to his execution in 1943. Knowing that Malick was recounting a true story — or, at least, a “story inspired by true events” — I hoped this would provide him the necessary structure to tell a straightforward story but in his own lush, allusive style.

And that’s exactly what Malick has done, and the result is a breathtaking beautiful — and heartbreaking — film, that tells this deeply spiritual story in a most deserving manner — as a contemplative parable of love.

The story is simple enough to be recounted in a short Wikipedia article. Franz (1907-1943) was an Austrian farmer who, after marrying his deeply religious wife Fani (1913-2013), embraced the way of faith himself, eventually becoming a Secular (Third Order) Franciscan. After Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the spring of 1938 — a move which Jägerstätter opposed, the only man in his village to do so — this farmer came to understand, as a matter of conscience, that he could not support the Nazi regime, fight for it, or  swear any kind of allegiance to it. When in 1943 he was drafted, he presented himself to the authorities, and although numerous attempts were made to talk him out of his conviction, he remained steadfast, leading to his death by guillotine in August of that year.

Terrence Malick stretches this incredibly straightforward story into a movie almost three hours long, and does so by allowing the story to unfold at a profoundly leisurely pace. The first third of the film is gorgeous, depicting the simple life of farmers in this bucolic Alpine paradise. Franz and Fani are depicted as utterly, joyfully, sensually in love. They are generous people, opening their home to his mother and her sister, along with their three children. They work hard to farm their land, and live simply and well.

Soon enough, though, clouds appear on the horizon, from the sound of military aircraft buzzing in the distance to villagers collecting money for the war effort — and giving Franz dirty looks when he refuses to contribute. The story progresses by focussing on the farmer’s moral dilemma, and the advice he seeks from both his neighbors and the authorities of the church. When his bishop flatly tells him “You have a duty to the fatherland,” Franz makes an excuse for him, assuming the bishop may have feared that he was a spy.

Like so much of Malick’s work, the movie lingers over the natural beauty of the countryside and the simple pleasures of this twentieth-century peasant world. But when Franz is conscripted and reports to the army, he is immediately singled out for his refusal to take the oath. Malick is careful to take just as much time unpacking the hell of Franz’s imprisonment as he previously tarried over the joys of his rural life. As the story progresses from garrison to prison to military tribunal in Berlin, it feels like a slow-motion precursor to Koyaanisqatsi — as the backdrop of the story becomes increasingly urban, grimy, and congested. Like all wise contemplatives, Malick understands that we must be present to life’s horrors as surely as we cherish its joys.

The director treats his subject with almost hagiographical reverence — even on the day of his execution, Franz Jägerstätter is depicted comforting another distraught condemned man. At the same time, he refuses to downplay the brokenness of the institutional Catholic Church. Throughout the film, the ecclesial authorities are shown as willing conformists to the Nazi order, instructing the conscientious objector that his stance is meaningless, unfair to his family, and ultimately a betrayal of his country. We should not lose sight of the fact that when Jägerstätter was beatified in 2007, he received this honor from Pope Benedict XVI, who had been a member of the Hitler youth in his childhood.

Contemplative viewers of this film who know how the story will end, may find solace in trusting in the “larger story” of Jägerstätter’s eventual vindication in the eyes of the world. The farmer’s eventual recognition as a hero and a martyr lends an irony to the many people in the film who harangued him about how his conscientious objection would make no difference.

What I appreciated about the film was not only the thoughtful, slow-moving pace which enabled me to appreciate the story as a gradual unfolding of how a man came to form his conscience — but also the truly moving depiction of his love for his wife and children. Actors August Diehl and Valerie Pachner have a passionate on-screen chemistry that makes the love of Franz and Fani not only believable, but delectable. At the risk of sounding pious, their relationship as presented in this film seems truly sacramental. This was a movie as much about the sacrament of marriage as about the faith of a martyr.

For my money, it’s the best spiritual film I’ve seen since 2010’s Of Gods and Men — a very different story about martyrs, albeit told in a similar contemplative way. But A Hidden Life is not only contemplative, but profoundly beautiful — even while it never flinches from how heartbreaking the story is that it has to tell.

Incidentally, Thomas Merton fans may recognize the story of Franz Jägerstätter which Merton recounted in his book Faith and Violence.

Ora et Labora and Right Livelihood: Some Notes Toward a Contemplative Spirituality of Work

Most of us spend a lot of time working — so what is the spirituality of work? And how does work impact, or integrate with, our spiritual practice?

The motto of Benedictine monasticism is Ora et Labora. It’s Latin for, “Prayer and Work” or “Prayer and Labor.” I love how the ora is actually found within labora, suggesting that prayer is (or can/should be) a part of work.

Compare this to the noble eightfold path of Buddhism: the Buddha’s prescription for how to balance one’s life in the interest of finding liberation from suffering. One of the key eight disciplines is “Right Livelihood” — suggesting that having a mindful, conscious, ethical relationship with one’s work is an important part of liberation.

I imagine for many people it might be easy to ignore or under-emphasize the question of how spirituality impacts work (and vice versa). Perhaps it’s too easy to create a firewall between our lives at work and our spiritual practice.

Most of us recognize how not to mix work and spirituality. For example, too many workplaces have that  annoying guy down in the accounting department who will talk your ear off about Jesus if you let him — the one who always wants to know if you’ve been saved or not. Thanks to overzealous folks like that, we’ve learned that bringing religion, or even spirituality, into the workplace is bad form (and frowned upon by H.R.). So we keep these two aspects of our lives separated.

But is that always skillful? Could there be a spirituality of work that does not succumb to the annoying-displays-of-religiosity, but instead is holistic, mindful, compassionate, and wise?

You Work More Than You Realize

For most of us, there are at least 81,000 reasons why we need a healthy relationship between spirituality and work.

Consider this statistic. If you work from age 21 to age 65, let’s say 40 hours a week, with (on average) ten holidays, and twenty personal (vacation/sick) days each year; then over the course of your lifetime you will invest more than ten thousand days — or 81,000 hours in work.

And realistically, many of us work more than that — because we don’t always have (or take) that many holidays and personal days each year; plus many people work significant amounts of overtime, or have to juggle two jobs to make ends meet. And not everyone wants to (or can afford to) retire at 65. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that some of us will log in over 100,000 hours of work in a single lifetime.

Mary Oliver famously asked,

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Whether we like it or not, many of us devote a good chunk of our lives to work. So if we take our spiritual lives seriously, it’s important that we find a meaningful spiritual understanding of the work we have chosen (or have been given) to do.

A Healthy Spirituality-of-Work Begins with a Healthy Spirituality

Maybe the reason why it’s too easy to erect a firewall between work and spirituality is because we’ve seen too many examples (like the guy in the accounting department that I mentioned above) of people who bring their spirituality (or their religion) to work in clearly unhealthy ways. Perhaps the first thing we need to do is be clear about is the difference between healthy and unhealthy spirituality.

Unhealthy spirituality has poor boundaries. It wants to control others, and it insists that there is only one “right” way to be spiritual (or religious). It can be arrogant, it typically involves naive or fundamentalistic belief systems, and it tends to be judgmental and moralistic, rather than compassionate and understanding. This is the kind of spirituality that has, quite sensibly, made most people allergic to any displays of religiosity or spirituality in the secular workplace.

A healthy spirituality, by contract, is a spirituality which seeks to understand rather than to control. It’s a spirituality that begins with a recognition that every human being is imperfect and has a shadow side, but also that every human being is capable of incredible imagination, creativity, and compassion. So it is a spirituality that seeks to affirm what is good more than it fusses over correcting what is not. It understands that in a diverse and secular workplace, spirituality often needs to be handled with discretion and respect for others. It’s a spirituality that accepts differences in belief and practice, and so it seeks to affirm what people share in common rather than just highlighting was sets us apart. Most importantly, it chooses compassion over competition, never seeking to win points at the expense of others but rather trying to find ways to help everyone to “win.”

Another important quality of a healthy spirituality is that it almost always has a contemplative dimension to it. Therefore, I believe that a truly creative spirituality of work will likewise be contemplative in nature.

I believe that in most of the world’s religions, you can find examples of both healthy and unhealthy types of spirituality, because these are human characteristics, not just expressions of religious teachings.

So the first thing I would say: if we want a healthy spirituality-of-work, we need to begin by cultivating a healthy spirituality in general terms. Without the foundation of a spirituality grounded in contemplation, compassion and care, the likelihood of fostering a truly creative approach to the spirituality of work will likely get nowhere.

What Would a Healthy Spirituality of Work Look Like?

Looking at the broader picture, I’d like to suggest seven principles worth considering as we seek to foster a truly dynamic relationship between our inner lives and our work.

  1. A healthy spirituality of work understands that work is an integral part of life as a whole. Just as you cannot separate “spirituality” from the rest of life in a holistic way, likewise, work must be understood in a similar holistic way. If we have an unhealthy relationship with work, it will affect life in general. If we are aggressive and hyper-competitive in the workplace, those qualities will impact other areas of life. If we allow ourselves to behave unethically or without compassion in the workplace, we can be sure that this will impact other relationships as well, including the relationships we hold the most dear: with family and close friends. So the first key to a healthy spirituality of work is recognizing that we must find ways to be authentic about who we truly are: at work, as well as in our times of meditation and contemplation.
  2. A creative spirituality of work fosters inner growth and personal development, but also honors ordinary tasks. Many jobs, from cleaning the house to performing one specific task on an assembly line, may seem to be tedious and mundane — hardly a means to expressing personal growth or creativity. But even the most humdrum job can be improved upon, so there’s always room for some sort of positive change. Meanwhile, the fact that labor can be repetitive drudgery is not necessarily a bad thing, for all of human life has a cyclical quality to it. Cleaning, maintaining, repairing — some tasks by nature are “quotidian.” A spirituality of work acknowledges this, and finds meaning and purpose even in the most repetitive task. All work is valuable, no matter how creative or how commonplace any given job might be.
  3. A positive spirituality of work understands that spiritual virtues and values: such as hope, compassion, forgiveness, cooperation, among others — belong in the workplace as much as they belong in the home, at our place of worship, or in our recreational life. Life is built on relationships, every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. We need to relate to coworkers, supervisors and employees, mentors and trainees, competitors and contractors, vendors and customers. While the purpose of work is not just to play fun and games, by nature these relationships will be formal and sometimes adversarial. A spirituality of work will acknowledge that work-based relationships have their own inherent value, and deserve to be based on an ethical understanding that people matter more than money or things.
  4. A meaningful spirituality of work recognizes that we need a purpose for work beyond just earning an income. Spiritually meaningful work has to be of service, and has to make a difference in people’s lives in a truly positive way. All work has an element of self-interest to it: I show up at the office every day because I need the income and the satisfaction of using my skills effectively. But if we stop with self-serving reasons for work, we cut ourselves off from much that can be truly rewarding. How does my work make a difference in the lives of others? How does it contribute to the common good? How will it make the world a better place, especially for my children? Such questions can help us discern the true value of our profession.
  5. A compassionate spirituality of work recognizes that the challenges of the marketplace — fierce competition, relentless urgency, and lack of customer loyalty — must be met with spiritual values that seek to elevate, rather than debase, our professional relationships. Work takes effort, and success requires discipline and demanding performance; it’s not easy, and it can be stressful and at times discouraging. A spirituality of work faces the challenges of our professional lives with confidence and industriousness, but also recognizes that when work seems meaningless or soulless, that sometimes we have to renew or labor with values that are bigger than the demands of the marketplace. Work is only one part of life, and so the values that govern life as a whole sometimes need to inform our work, to keep it meaningful.
  6. A joyful spirituality of work understands that hard work ennobles our humanity, but alienating or soul-crushing work is a problem that needs to be addressed. St. Benedict encouraged a life of both prayer and work because he recognized that even the hardest or dullest work can be occasions for prayer, if a person is so spiritually oriented. But likewise, even the most exciting or rewarding work can be soul-deadening if it occurs in a hostile environment or if the worker’s overall life is unbalanced. Part of any effort of labor is a willingness to discern what works about the work — and what doesn’t. The days of loyalty to the big corporation are over (the big corporations are rarely loyal to their workers!). So each laborer must be willing to make changes when necessary to keep their working lives spiritually rewarding.
  7. A contemplative spirituality of work recognizes that labor and prayer, or work and contemplation, ought to support each other. In the middle ages, monastic writers would sometimes talk about the difference between the “active” life (devoted to work) and the “contemplative” life (devoted to prayer, usually involving live in a monastery or convent). Nowadays, even monks and nuns recognize that they have to work just as much as anyone else, which is why so many religious communities brew legendary beer or make irresistible bread or cheese or candy. The split between prayer and work is fictitious: the most prayerful person still needs the dignity of labor, and the hardest worker still needs time for rest, reflection and renewal. In many professions, workers who wish to excel need to bring a contemplative mindfulness to their work.

Perhaps you have other thoughts about how to effectively integrate spirituality and work. Whether practical ideas (having a meditation room in the office) or more theoretical, I think this is a conversation we all need to be having regularly. Making the effort to ensure that our work is spiritually meaningful will make a positive difference in our lives as a whole.

Photo credit: Andrew Neel on Unsplash