Here is a little something for us to sit with in preparation for Easter.
Along with millions of others I recently viewed a photo on Facebook of a group of elderly women at La Vita Bella nursing home in Dickinson, Texas. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey they sat in water up to their waists waiting to be rescued. Not exactly the Beautiful Life they had expected. One resident did craft work, others just sat and waited. How does one keep one’s self stable and centered when fear stands watch outside the door threatening to knock it down? As I’ve continued to ask myself that this week a memory of another tragedy caught my attention.
September 11, 2001. An eerie, out-of-character silence had settled on my class of seventeen-year-olds as we waited for news of a sighted but now missing hijacked airplane. Two had already crashed into the twin towers. A wail shattered the silence, emitted from a slumped-over manchild. “Where is my brother? He isn’t answering his phone. WHERE IS MY BROTHER?” How does one keep one’s self stable and centered when fear stands watch outside the door threatening to knock it down?
One day at a time, one choice at a time. In another era we would have said one self-denial at a time. As a young nun in pre-Vatican II days I wore sacrifice beads and pulled one down with each denial. Please. Meister Eckhart fiercely condemns such practices as blocks to birthing the real God in our lives. I think we prepare for those times of no control with the practice of relinquishing control. By letting go of the need to control we become free and able to endure lack of control. We can let go of our need to have the last word, the most stunning idea, the brilliant psychoanalysis of our neighbor. By living outside of our egos we learn to live inside of ourselves where we are sparks of the divine. If we address the fear which stands outside our door from that place, we know how to wait for the rescue.
Cold water rising
Strong women reap peace past sown
Fear flees in its wake
rita h kowats 9-4-17
Photo Credit Hands: creative commons https://pixabay.com
Photo CreditLa Vita Bella: Trudy Lampson via AP
I descend cracked concrete stairs into a tunnel that winds under the streets of NYC. I have some fear. It is very dark and feels hollow. I hear subtle rattling in the distance, the sound pinging off the damp walls, calling to me? With every step comes a commitment to the journey and curiosity about the destination. The longer I walk the louder the rattling. Light ahead. Closer…to what? Silence. I gingerly walk through an aperture and am greeted by several skeletons. Each one has a gold kiss on its cheekbone. Light from a crack in the tunnel’s ceiling wraps them in warmth. I feel embraced, welcomed, as if they have been waiting for me for a long time. I know I am home. There are so many questions: Who are they? Why are they here? Why have they waited for me? Who left the kiss on their cheeks? Before I can ask, one skeleton steps forward and offers me a loaf of bread, saying, “For the journey back up.” I don’t want to leave, but waking life intervenes and I “feel it in my bones” that the tunnel has brought me to the mountain top.
Bare Bones Truth filters into the soul
Between the tendons of our lives,
And like a hungry dog, doesn’t let go
Until it has done its work.
It gnaws down,
Seals us with its golden kiss,
And heaves us back into the thick of life,
Stark but strong.
When all is said and done our call in this life is simple: Love God, Love Self, Love Others. Love is born through a rigorous process of disarming the heart. it is an act of unparalleled trust. It frightens us, so we fiercely protect our center like petals protecting the heart of a flower . The choice to unveil the beauty of the center leaves us vulnerable, so we resist and protect it. I am deeply grateful for the witness of many prophets who faithfully do the hard work of disarming so that they can preach the truth from a clean place. Because they are doing it, I believe that it is possible.
The practice of disarming the heart is so important, that without it, we have no moral authority to do justice. Our call to do justice presupposes the call to let go of the ego entrapments that motivate us: unbridled power, arrogance, addictive control, unfocused fear, selfish competition, resentment. The more these attitudes motivate us, the more we stifle dialogue with an adversary; however, knowledge and acceptance of our entrapments create openness and opportunity for dialogue. Paradoxically, this is a very strong place from which to do justice. When we are committed to disarming the heart, we are truly “walking the talk.”
Although the practice of disarming the heart is difficult, we can do it in simple and practical ways. Foremost, the process necessitates a degree of solitude and silence in which we have the space to allow peace to germinate. Without peace we cannot bore through the clamor of ego enough to see and recognize the needs of one another, much less the needs of the world. We unconsciously allow the clamor to persist because it throws a safe cloak around our inner core. We fear the power of our deepest self because if that gift is acknowledged, life becomes dangerous and demanding. It’s easier to hide the prophet in us. But we must do the work, and expose the prophet, because unconscious “peace” only plays at doing justice.
Within the moments of silence and solitude which we carve out, saying mantras can be a powerful spiritual tool. For four years I leafleted weekly at a nuclear submarine base in Puget Sound. To stay alert and focused at 6:00 A.M. I recited, “Come Lord Jesus, set us free.” It was a plea to let go of the fear and prejudice which blocked leafleters and workers from honest dialogue. Sometimes preoccupied by angry challenges, or still half asleep, I forgot to say the mantra. A frequent traveler into the base came in a pickup truck with a rifle on a rack. I would think, “Oh, does this guy hate me.” One day I was able to pay attention when the truck came through. The driver looked depressed, and from some place in me I blurted, “How are you this morning?” He responded, “How am I? I’m terrible. How else would I be, having to go in there every day and do the work I have to do?” We were connected from that moment on, because We both had allowed the Spirit to disarm our egos.
We are sometimes unable to dialogue peacefully because we cache resentment and blame, finger tip-ready to call up on queue. Such arming of the heart causes violence and blocks progress toward achieving justice. Buddhists have a practice of forgiveness in which they pray to forgive self and others for all conscious and unconscious harmful acts. I think this prayer should be a part of every training for nonviolent action, and a daily practice for anyone serious about falling in love with God, self, and others.
Finally, I want to say something on behalf of ego. I embrace it, because it’s in the mix of being human. Like the petals which surround the heart of the flower, it has a purpose. When strong and focused, it keeps us safe and gives us the courage to love. The goal is to harness the ego, not annihilate it. We want to have a sense of humor about it all, lest we become zealots to whom no one wants to listen. Meister Eckhart says that “God laughs and plays,” and that works for me! The more fear we have of exposing our own complicity in injustice, the more inclined we are to set up protective barriers; however, if we hold our own flawed natures lightly, we are less likely to attack our adversaries for their flawed natures. Disarming in this way doesn’t mean we have to condone the unjust action. It simply means that we accept our commonality as human beings.
In his poem, “Peace,” Gerard Manley Hopkins offers a unique description of heart-disarmament: “And when peace here does house, he comes with work to do. He does not come to coo, he comes to brood and sit.” May our brooding create a peace which births justice.
“Disarmament of the Heart” was first published in AMOS, a journal of the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center, Seattle: ipjc.org
“I have often stated that there is a power in the soul that touches neither time nor flesh. It flows out of the spirit and remains in the spirit, and is totally and utterly spiritual. In this power God is as totally verdant and flourishing in all joy and in all honor as he is in himself….In the power God is unceasingly glowing and burning with all his wealth, with all his sweetness, and with all his bliss.” Meister Eckhart
This morning I landed on “Thomas and Friends” while surfing channels to escape the rigors of surgical rehab. Thomas was winding through a mountain pass when thick fog set in, robbing the little engine of all visual perspective. Immediately I stepped into panic mode. What if the tracks are shattered? What if something is on the tracks? What if another train has switched over onto Thomas’ track? The dense fog slithered around me and took control as surely as if the situation were real. “STOP, THOMAS!” I ALMOST YELLED. Then…Oh. It’s just a cartoon, Rita. But fear had touched me on a primal level.
The fog of fear moves in when we least expect it, and like a photo shop tool, distorts who we really are. God’s power in the depths of the soul is so abundant, that we fear it will overtake us. But who are we, if not “sparks of the divine” (Meister Eckhart)? We fear that God’s power will stun others with its light and they will withdraw in their discomfort, leaving us alone. But we can’t name the fear that way. Instead, we camouflage it by convincing ourselves that we are nothing. We are sinful and proud wretches. Fear is very effective in preserving that illusion. And we remain safe from the risks inherent in the choice to grow.
We don’t trust that God’s power is enough to carry us through and beyond the fog. We don’t trust that the power of God in us has eyes to see when we lose our sight. May we develop the ability to see and accept the power of God in us, and the courage to let it spill out in spontaneous acts of unconditional love.