I want it to be different

Listen to parts of Ann Weems’ poem “This Year Will Be Different”:

Who among us does not have dreams that this year will be different?
Who among us does not intend to go peacefully, leisurely, carefully toward Bethlehem,
for who among us likes to cope with the commercialism of Christmas
which lures us to tinsel not only the tree but also our hearts?
Who among us intends to get caught up in tearing around and wearing down?
Who among us does not long for:
gifts that give love?
shopping in serenity?
cards and presents sent off early?
long evenings by the fireside with those we love?…
This year we intent to follow the Star instead of the crowd.
But, of course, we always do intend the best.

She nails it for me. I’m right there with her. Or is it just me? Am I the adventonly one to want Advent and the journey toward Christmas to be different? Stress-less, hassle free, and peace among all people (especially families). More about people than presents, Jesus than tinsel, anticipation than anxiety.

My problem is that I want it all. I want to tend to my spirit AND my Christmas tree. I love people and giving presents (especially the perfect ones). I want to eat all the cookies and still lose 5 pounds. Basically, I want things to be different, but I don’t want to change what I’m doing. A sure sign of insanity, I know. But I think I come by it honestly. I think it is simply a human trait.

Take a look at part of the Isaiah passage (11:1-4a, 6, 9) we read in conjunction with this poem:

The wolf will dwell with the lamb,
And the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
The calf and the lion cub will graze together,
And a little child will lead them.
There will be no harm, no destruction
Anywhere in my holy mountain,
For as water fills the sea,
So the land will be filled with knowledge of Yahweh.

Apparently we’ve always wanted things to be different… perfect even… but things haven’t changed much socially and politically in the last 2,000 years.

I wonder, was the prophet Isaiah simply dreaming when he foresaw a new leader from the line of Jesse who would make everything perfect?  They would bring a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge and reverence for God. Suddenly people would delight in serving God, wouldn’t judge others by their appearances, or make decisions without the facts. Poor people would be treated fairly and with justice. And then everyone and everything that was normally pitted against each other would live in harmony. There would be no harm or destruction because all would be filled with the knowledge of God. Wow. How amazing would that be?

By the way – the reference to the little child leading them was not originally about any specific child. It was simply a symbolic image, a pastoral setting where a young child led all the animals like a shepherd. We hear this passage every year at this time because it was the hope that the child Jesus would usher in this era of peace. Surely with this child things would be different! Jesus didn’t magically bring those things, but we still hope he will. We don’t only hope our personal lives will be filled with harmony and peace, we want that for the world, too. We want this year to be different for everyone.

So, this brings us back to our dilemma: we want things to be different, but we don’t necessarily want to change. We want the world to be more peaceful, but we’re irritated beyond belief at the person in front of us driving 5 mph under the speed limit. We haven’t figured out how to be peaceful inside ourselves… so how can we bring peace to the world?

It’s (painfully) clear to me that if we really want something to be different, whether it is a big something or a little something, we need to actively work to make it different. I’ve been reading a book that reminded me of this, and offers one way to try to move forward so that perhaps this year might really be different.

The book suggests that if not getting what we want causes us to suffer, then we know we are too attached to the outcome. We are not fully aligning with life, but to our view of how things are “supposed” to be. It is the difference between aligning with our preferences and our ego, or aligning with the flow of life. Becoming clear with ourselves about the difference takes time, attention and energy. The process though is simple, it entails answering three questions:

What do we want? What is reality? Taking that into account, what do we REALLY want?

First we determine what our preference is, what we want in any given situation. Then we examine the reality of the situation. Finally, we ask ourselves what we really want by going beyond the surface of the desire to the depths of our yearning. Then determine if we can give that quality to ourselves.

For example, I want a Christmas day with my kids.

The reality is that my kids are with me on Christmas Eve (which I also wouldn’t change), and then they head to Chicago to be with their dad’s family. The reality also is that we spend at least part of Christmas day with my wife’s family… which is not particularly stress-free, but important to her.

If I were too attached to what I wanted, it would make me miserable. Instead, aligning to the flow of life means accepting that Christmas is what it is. Then I ask myself again what I really want. Well, I want to feel the spirit of Christmas – joy, love, and laughter, being with people I care about, enjoying a nice meal and wallowing in the end of a busy season with a nice glass of red wine.

This year offered a new solution. Turns out our friends and neighbors across the street will also not be spending Christmas day with kids (as was hoped) so that night we’ll make their traditional Christmas meal and enjoy some wine, friendship, and cribbage. And I will get what my spirit yearns for, maybe not in the exact form I hoped for, but that piece has to be let go.

Maybe change isn’t so bad after all. Maybe this year can be different.

Love & Light!


Simply Following Jesus

In our third week of delving into the medieval mystics, we will explore the life, stories and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi.

Francis was born in 1182 in Assisi, Italy. Europe and the Muslim world had already endured two crusades. The third crusade began when Francis was a boy, and the fourth when he was twenty-one. Despite the atmosphere of war, as the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis grew up fairly carefree, almost a playboy and party-er. Assisi itself joined in an ongoing war with Perugia, a neighboring city. Exuberantly, Francis rode off to fight, but was quickly taken prisoner and held for ransom. While in prison, Francis contracted malaria and began to reflect inward on the purpose of his life.

(For the full video version, click here.)

After a year his ransom was finally paid and Francis came out of prison beaten down, disillusioned, and feeling there must be something more than all this cruelty and aggression. It was during this time that Francis wandered into a little run down church and heard a voice saying, “Francis, repair my house.” With a purpose now before him, Francis was transformed.

However, rehabbing the little church would be a challenge with no money. Not to be deterred, Francis simply stole goods from his father and sold them to get the money for materials. When he was caught, his father called a town meeting, and I assume planned to make an example of him and shame him into shaping up. Instead Francis took off  all his rich clothing, tossed them back to his father, and claimed that his only father was God. Francis then pledged himself in service to God and the church. He donned the rough clothes of the beggar and proceeded to live a life of voluntary poverty.

One day when he was out walking on the plains below Assisi, he came across some lepers… people the “old Francis” would have given a wide berth while plugging his nose at the stench of their disease. Now, however, Francis approached them, touched them, and offered them comfort and compassion.

Francis began to live the Gospel of Jesus as he knew it. He lived in poverty, had no possessions or place to lay his head, showed love and kindness to all people, lived with deep compassion, and preached about peace and the love of God for all. It wasn’t long before others were attracted to the monumental change in him and his way of life and began to follow him.

Though Francis resisted priesthood, perhaps because that would identify himself with a higher class of people, he had such a following that he did finally seek permission from Pope Innocent to preach and to establish an order based on living the Gospel.

I think I’ve always sort of thought of St. Francis as a fluffy saint who loved animals and preached to the birds. Yes, he is said to have had an inexhaustible tenderness about him, but his message wasn’t necessarily warm and fuzzy. His message called people to do something hard… be like Jesus. Love one another and do something about improving the world.

Francis preached peace in the midst of war.

He preached benevolence and God’s love for all in opposition to those who preached about duty, sacrifice and killing the infidel.

He is the only Christian man ever known to attempt two or three trips to dialogue with the “enemy” during the Crusades against Muslims in the Holy Land. Francis even went so far as telling the Christians they were wrong for crusading and persecuting these children of God. During one trip he even met with the Muslim Sultan of Egypt, who wanted peace as much as he did. They had great discussions about prayer and theology and Francis returned home having grown in his spirituality.

Francis lived in simplicity because he understood that having things tended to lead to greed and defending those things. Once you have things you worry about losing your things, and you want more things, you may even covet your neighbors’ things.

No, we’re not like Francis, it is truly a Divine calling to voluntarily live in poverty. But perhaps we could take a small step back and take a look at how our culture has twisted Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the one holiday that isn’t about getting stuff (gluttony, maybe, but not stuff). It’s about the simple gifts of harvest, abundance, sharing, family, relationships. There is no expectation of receiving gifts, except the gifts of the earth – food for our tables. The whole goal is to feel gratitude.

The essential goodness in all that is now being overshadowed by football and commercialism. In fact, now we have pre-Black Friday sales, and Black Thursday sales. And heaven forbid we let retail folks get a good night’s sleep… instead we’ll start opening the stores at midnight on Thursday. Then we’ll have Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday! If you have anything left by Giving Tuesday, we can then give a little to our favorite charity. When will it stop?

Poor Francis would’ve had a heart attack. What happens to our souls in the midst of it all?

A sermon about Francis would be lacking without the story of the birds…Francis 1

As time went on, more and more people were attracted to his order, and it lost more and more of his original vision. Francis struggled with whether to retire entirely and devote himself to prayer, or to continue traveling and preaching. To answer this question, he sought the counsel of some of his trusted friends and colleagues, Brother Sylvester and Sister Clare. The answer came quickly: yes, God wanted Francis to continue preaching. Without delay, Francis took to the roads. As he is walking, he comes upon a very large flock of birds and rushes to greet them as if they could understand him.

St. Bonaventure writes, “He went right up to them and solicitously urged them to listen to the word of God, saying,  ‘Oh birds, my brothers and sisters, you have a great obligation to praise your Creator, who clothed you in feathers and gave you wings to fly with, provided you with pure air and cares for you without any worry on your part.’…The birds showed their joy in a remarkable fashion: They began to stretch their necks, extend their wings, open their beaks and gaze at him attentively.

“He went through their midst with amazing fervor of spirit, brushing against them with his tunic. Yet none of them moved from the spot until the man of God made the sign of the cross and gave them permission to leave; then they all flew away together. His companions waiting on the road saw all these things. When he returned to them, that pure and simple man began to accuse himself of negligence because he had not preached to the birds before.”

Some sources say that from that day on Francis made sure to preach to all the animals and entreat them to praise and love the creator.

As with any of us, Francis’ spirituality continued to change and grow. The more he came to understand the boundlessness of God’s love, the more he recognized that it wasn’t just about loving humans, but about loving all creatures.

As we quickly approach the Advent season, Francis is a good segue as he had a particular fondness for Christmas.  For him the Word of God not only became a tiny child entering the human family, but Jesus entered the whole family of creation, becoming one with everything.

So, as Jack Wintz writes, “Francis had a keen sense that all creatures—not just humans—must be included in the celebration of Christmas.” There are stories about how Francis wanted  “the emperor to ask all citizens to scatter grain along the roads on Christmas Day so that the birds and other animals would have plenty to eat. Walls, too, should be rubbed with food, Francis said, and the beasts in the stable should receive a bounteous meal on Christmas Day. He believed that all creatures had a right to participate in the celebration of Christmas.”

Living in poverty and pushing his body too hard took its toll on Francis. He became badly malnourished and contracted leprosy and malaria. He spent four years on a straw bed. During those four years 3,000 men joined the order.

But as the order grew it became divided between those who wanted to live Francis’ original vision of poverty, simplicity and service, and those who wanted a more traditional monastic life. Eventually Francis resigned and he experienced his own dark night of the soul during which he became very ill again. It was during this time that it is said he received the stigmata – the wounds of Jesus – as a result of living his life so like Jesus.

It was on his deathbed that he dictated his famous poem, “Canticle of the Creatures” where he sang praises to Brother Sun and Sister Moon, to Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire and Sister Mother Earth, and finally Sister Death.

There are many lessons we could take from Francis:

  • Oneness of all creation and God’s love for all of creation
  • Living simply and tenderly
  • Embracing the outcast
  • Accepting other ideas and understandings of the Divine
  • Seeing God everywhere
  • Accepting death as a sister
  • Living peacefully without greed or violence
  • Being grateful
  • Be a servant

We probably won’t become another Francis, but perhaps his example will prompt us to grow spiritually in one of those ways, to make even a small change to the way we live or behave.

Love & Light!


Dark Night of the Soul

In our second week of delving into the medieval mystics, we find ourselves with John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul.”

Juan de Yepes was born into extreme poverty in 1542 in Fontiveros, Spain. When his father died he moved with his mother to Medina de Campo where he had access to some of the finest education at the time, first as an orderly at a plague hospital where he was permitted to study at the new Jesuit school, and then at the university of Salamanca as a young Carmelite student. He was ordained in 1567.

Truly, John was an introvert, a scholar and a poet, but Teresa of Avila saw St. John of the Crosssomething great in him and hitched him to her cause of reforming the Carmelite order, which had been founded on the ideals of a simple life spent in solitude and prayer, but that vision had all but died. At the time there were some 200 nuns in the convent, the wealthiest of those had suites of rooms that they shared with relatives and servants. Teresa decided to start a new convent closer to the original idea, but faced huge opposition. She pressed on anyway, but knew her reform would fail unless it involved monks as well. Though John was 27 years her junior (and under 5 feet tall, not that that means anything) he became her apprentice and they founded a new reformed Carmelite order for men. Three years later John’s superiors told him to quit. He refused, thus becoming an outlaw in his own order.

Shortly after, John was abducted, bound and blindfolded and taken to a monastery over 80 miles away where they tried to force him to renounce his work. He refused and was beaten and thrown into the monastery prison where he survived on bread and water. He was not allowed to bathe, change his clothes, or leave his cell, except for beatings. After two months he was placed in solitary confinement where the only light came through a slit in the prison wall. There he began to compose his greatest works, including the poem “The Dark Night of the Soul,” first by memorizing the words it the dark and then writing them down when he was finally given paper and ink. He escaped after 9 months.

(For the full video version, click here.)

John has been called the greatest psychologist in the history of mysticism. While his theology is quite varied, he is best known for his exploration of the “dark night.” This concept of the “dark night of the soul” has become common terminology over the centuries, but few people know where it originated.

When people hear that he wrote dark night while in prison, they assume that it is a memoir about the worst part of his life. Perhaps we expect John to tell us how awful it was and how his faith got him through it. But it is more accurately thought of as a love story between the lover and the Beloved. It requires the lover (aka “soul”) to completely let go of everything and enter into the unknown darkness to have a true encounter with the Beloved (aka “God”).

In the commentaries he wrote on his own poem, John uses the “dark night” to refer primarily to the critical moments of transition in the stages of spiritual growth. For our purposes, it is sufficient, as scholars Robin Maas and Gabriel O’Donnell say, “to speak of the “dark night” in terms of human “limit-experiences”… times when we’ve reached a point in our lives and in our prayer when everything seems to fall apart. We feel lost, confused, frustrated, and abandoned by God and our friends. We may be painfully aware of how good we used to have it. Often this happens when our comfortable religion breaks down in the face of lives struggles and questions. Perhaps God no longer seems real. Perhaps our faith now seems meaningless.”

How do you know if you’re really in a dark night? 

If the dark night is due to illness, lukewarmness, or a recent “sin” then John says returning to health or “sincere Christian living” will take care of it. Depression can also resemble a dark night, except that it can be treated with medication or therapy. A true dark night, which may, or may not, be triggered by traumas in our lives is an intense and pervasive inner anguish and complete disorientation to everything – self, God and the world.

Well known preacher and theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, talks about experiencing the dark night (or cloudy night) of the soul when her “reliable ideas about God began to slip away.” The slipping began when the language of faith – sin, salvation, repentance, grace – lost meaning. She discovered that slowly, over the years, she had not lost faith, but had lost faith in a system that given her words, doctrine, rituals and practices that would supposedly be all she needed to understand, teach and share God. But, the way she had been taught to be Christian didn’t work anymore, and she found herself lost in that dark night.

John of the Cross has a very interesting take on God’s part in this dark night. When it is experienced, it feels as if God has abandoned us, as the Psalmist cries out in Psalm 22:1 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But in reality, John says, God is closer than God has ever been. The dark night is a time of releasing (purging) and illuminating.

Once again language falls short of explaining the ineffable, so John describes this experience metaphorically.

  • One way to look at it is as if we were a cave dweller emerging into the bright sunshine. The brilliant light is actually painful to look upon. There is only one way to regain one’s sight and that is to continue to spend time in that bright light, giving the eyes time to adjust, no matter how painful it might be.
  • The second metaphor John uses is that of a log becoming fire. He explains that what happens inwardly in the dark night of the soul is that as the love of God penetrates deeper and deeper into our being we are slowly consumed and engulfed, eventually becoming the fire itself. The smoke and steam, and perhaps worms and bugs, seen exiting the log as it begins to burn are the things of our lives that need to be released, let go of, before transformation can take place. These things might include our belief structures, ideologies, expectations, perfection, mistakes, guilt, shame, material things, fear, grudges and more. Once all of those things are let go, one can see the light within oneself and is transformed.

Both of these processes are painful. Walking into such brilliant light that our own flaws, failings and weaknesses seem to stand out in stark contrast, and the process of having to examine and release all of these flaws, failings and weaknesses as we watch them turn to steam and disappear. Our old religion, creeds and doctrine, and images of God no longer fit in comparison to the reality found in the darkness. We are stripped of our illusions and false securities. We feel like we are losing our very selves.

Spiritual director and Jesuit priest, Thomas Greene, in his book When the Well Runs Dry recalled a “very prayerful sister telling [him] of her experience: God seemed so far away and so uninterested in her that she finally said to [him]: “All right! If you don’t care, then neither do I!” And she tried to avoid prayer and go her own way, even to “sin”! But she was equally miserable.” She was very surprised when Thomas told her that her experience was probably “a sign something good and deep was happening!”

Brown Taylor interprets John the Cross as saying,

“the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It is about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as a believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God. All of these are substitutes for God.”

In the same way the dark night frees us from our ideas about ourselves, the stories we tell about ourselves, the fears we have about life, the things we’ve bought into or rail against, our brokenness, our failures, our successes. All of these are substitutes for our authentic selves.

Just thinking about it can make me want to run. Escape sounds like a great idea, if only it were possible. Once the process begins, there is really no easy way out, one must go through. But what we are doing in this process of releasing and letting go is making room for something or someone greater and more mysterious. If we can stay in the place when we feel and see God least, and let the night do its work, we will gradually discover the Divine already dwelling within our hearts.

John’s advice is to “learn to let go, to walk forward in simple trust, [then] the turmoil will eventually give way to a profound and unshakable union with God that no further suffering can fundamentally disturb.”

God has not deserted us in the darkness, God is not punishing us or forsaking us. God is simply a creative force working in a way that is so deep it is beyond our senses. For John it was “God teaching the soul secretly and instructing it in the perfection of love without its doing anything or understanding how this happens.”




Deep Calls to Deep

The medieval mystics had many amazing experiences of the Divine, and are worth delving into for our own spiritual edification. So, for the next three weeks, we’ll be talking about some of the teachings of Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross and Francis of Assisi.

We don’t actually know the name of the woman we know of as Julian of Norwich.


But the person we call Julian was born in 1342. When she was 30 years old, she had a very serious illness during which she experienced a series of visions – which she called showings. She wrote two accounts of that experience, a short version, probably written shortly after her illness. And a longer version some 20 years later. At some point she became an anchorite attached to the church of St. Julian in Norwich, from which she took her name.

(For the full video version, click here.)

While Julian had mystical experiences, she was also human, just like any of us and her writings were certainly filtered through her experiences which would have included three sweeps of the plague through Europe, as well as the Peasant’s Revolt in London in 1381, and the burning of heretics who were challenging many teachings of the Catholic Church. I find it truly amazing that Julian wasn’t one of those labeled a heretic. Though she insisted she was faithful to the Catholic Church, her writings were often completely opposite to the God the church was preaching about.

For Julian, God was love, period. And because God was only love and nothing else, God couldn’t be angry. Nor was it that God forgave sins, but that humanity lived in a constant state of forgiveness. Plus, Julian believed that it was against human nature to sin – contrary to the church’s belief in original, inherent sin. For her, the Christian journey was really the discovery of our own authentic selves.

So, there is much about Julian to explore, but I’ve chosen this passage simply because it challenged me:

As we yearn for God,
So God yearns for us.
God thirsts for us.God longs to have union with all humanity.
Until that is fully accomplished, God thirsts.
God thirsts for us
As we thirst for God.
(Translation from: The Essence of Julian, by Ralph Milton)

It is the concept of yearning that snagged me. Yearning means “to have an intense feeling of longing for something, typically something that one has lost or been separated from.”

Do we yearn for God? I believe so. Do we always know that we yearn for God? No.

I believe there is something inherent within us that pulls us, draws us… it’s “an intense feeling of longing for” fulfillment, wholeness.

Wayne Dyer once said, “All my life I wanted to be somebody. Now I am finally somebody, but it isn’t me.” We are born into a state of pure “self” but then our ego takes over and learn to behave certain ways, look certain ways, and achieve certain things to be loved. We spend our lives trying to please others so that we will “be somebody” but we lose our very selves in the process. Our spiritual journey, as Julian would say, is to find our authentic selves and so find God.

It seems to hit us about mid-life when we realize that we’ve become somebody, but it isn’t us, that we experience a void or an emptiness deep within. We long to fill it, but aren’t sure how, so we try to find fulfillment through money, things, power, food, work, exercise, drama, alcohol, drugs, gambling, relationships, religion, meditation, etc.

Personally, I believe that the void cannot be filled by doing things, or getting things, or achieving things, or even by having the perfect person in our lives. I believe the emptiness that we yearn to fill is dependent only upon cultivating a relationship with the Ground of our Being, which (ironically enough) is achieved by finding ourselves.

So this part I get completely. The next part is trickier.

Does God yearn for us?

I tend to shy away from personifying God too much, especially when it implies that God needs anything from humanity – like God needs our worship, or needs our devotion, or needs our prayers or our unity (as Julian’s poem implies) – as if God is incomplete without those things.

So, does God yearn for us?

I think this is where language falls short, but I believe the answer is yes.

Our relationship with God is not a one-way street. The New Testament offers many stories of God’s yearning for us:

  • As the Father who yearns and waits for his prodigal son to come home.
  • As the shepherd who yearns for the one lost sheep to be back in the fold.
  • As the woman who lost her precious coin and yearned to find it again.

And yet it is more. It is a mutual dwelling within – “I am in Abba God and God is in me,” Jesus says.

Thinking about the depth of this connection, I remembered Psalm 42 that says, “Deep calls to deep.”

Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of your waterfalls;
all your waves and your billows
have washed over me.
By day You lead me in steadfast love;
at night your song is with me,
prayer from the Heart of my heart.
(Psalm 42:7-8 – Translation from Psalms for Praying, by Nan Merrill)

I believe the Divine Essence calls to the deepest part of our souls; we are pulled or drawn back into awareness of the energy of God. It is beyond words or thoughts, it is a heart connection and a soul connection.

It seems that story and metaphor explain this better than words.

Have you ever felt called by the ocean, or a lake, or a body of water? Drawn by the power and the sound. It’s as if the sea has called to us… deep to deep… only to find ourselves distracted by seashells, rocks, little crabs and screaming gulls. Sir Isaac Newton said:

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself
I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore,
and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble
or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth
lay all undiscovered before me.

Or perhaps you’ve been called by the woods? Drawn by the energy of the trees, by the beauty of the green or the colors or the branches against the snow, or by the silence and solitude that can envelop you like a blanket. It’s as if the woods have called to us… deep to deep… only to find ourselves distracted by running dogs and scrambling chipmunks, or missing it all as we focus on the forest floor to avoid tripping over roots. All the while there is a great forest of truth that pulses and moves around us… unnoticed and undiscovered.

We are part of the whole, but we’ve forgotten. And so, the Universe, Creation, the Divine Essence, the Spirit, the Ground of our Being, the energy of Love, yearns for us to remember that we’re not alone… we are part of all of it. Let us open our hearts and be drawn back into consciousness  of oneness. Let us open to the unity that is and be fulfilled and whole.

Love & Light!