Learning to Change My Ways

I recently committed to a three-week experiment in following a vegan diet—a way of eating I had long regarded as extreme. No cheese? No eggs? No milk? Along with no meat? It seemed a lot like no food.

But I was intrigued when my brother, whose favorite meals include Wendy’s double cheeseburgers, said he was trying it. And less than a week later when he said he felt more energetic than in a long while, I ordered the book he had been reading. By the time I had read most of 21-Day Weight Loss Kick Start: Boost Metabolism, Lower Cholesterol, and Dramatically Improve Your Health, by Neal D. Barnard, MD, I decided to give it a try.

To take on that kind of change, even for just three weeks, is a major undertaking. It means learning to cook with strange ingredients from unfamiliar grocery store aisles. It means bringing new lenses to reading a restaurant menu. If nothing else, it’s gratifying to now know I can take on something new and make it work. But more importantly, I feel better for the changes I’ve made.

Given what I had read and heard, I wasn’t entirely surprised by that. The unexpected part of the experience has been the help I received from friends, which was an unanticipated pleasure.

As I first considered this three-week trial, I mentioned to a few people what I was thinking about. Not only were they supportive and interested in how things were going, those with more experience in this way of eating have shared books, recipes, tips, ideas for menus, and a great deal of encouragement. A dear friend even walked with me through the Good Foods Co-op, pointing out some of the items that would help me prepare satisfying meals.

I could not have anticipated the warmth, encouragement, and practical help offered by many different people in my life. Some I knew well, some were acquaintances. But all were eager to talk about the positive results of switching to a plant-based diet. I came home from a conversation at my hairdresser’s with a recipe carefully written by someone glad to offer help in learning a new way to eat. Even the owner of our favorite Chinese restaurant noticed the change when my family ordered all tofu dishes. He was happy to hear about the diet we were trying and urged us to stick with the vegetarian way.

I’m struck by the generosity and goodwill of those who have helped me learn a better way to nourish the body. All the people who care enough to offer their experience and knowledge have made this challenge so much easier. In their help and support for what they have found to be a better way of life, they have offered a kind of hospitality that reminds me of what churches try to cultivate. Change is hard and we all need help when it’s time to make a transformation in our lives, no matter what kind it may be.

This experience will certainly shape the way I eat from now on. It also has me considering how communities naturally arise when people find something so good that it’s worth sharing, and want to help others along the way.

Is there a community that helps you through the transformations that life asks you to make?


The Work in Front of You

I like what Karen Maezen Miller says about work in her memoir, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life.

“Accord yourself with what needs to be done—the very thing that appears before you. What appears before you is not only the most important thing; it is the only thing, all other things existing in your imagination, for the time being.”

Miller is both a suburban mom and a Zen Buddhist priest, a combination of roles that seems particularly apt to me. When she talks about the work in front of her, she often means the same work that confronts me: piles of laundry and a kitchen to clean. Work that an unenlightened being on a bad day might consider drudgery.

Yet I know enough to recognize the wisdom in her teaching. I know that the dread I feel when the insurance company demands documentation is far worse than the effort of retrieving those papers from the files. I know that the frustration of cluttered counters and closets is far more painful than actually clearing them.

The problem is that I have better things to do with my time, or at least I think I do. I have more creative pursuits to follow, more important work to accomplish. I have a more fulfilling life to live than the messy one in front of me with all of its exasperating details.

On the other hand, sometimes the work in front of me is more complicated. That work may be the next step to take toward a larger goal. Often the problem that arises then is that I don’t know how to do it. Which means the additional task of learning to take on something I haven’t done before. There’s no ease with that, no sense of mastery. It would be so much more comfortable to just do what I’m good at.

I can avoid the big scary projects for a while, immersing myself in other things. But no one moves forward that way. And eventually all other endeavors lose their flavor if I’m not doing the work that calls to me. At the same time, it’s hard to do that higher level work when I’m tripping over the shoes and magazines piled on the floor.

So the work in front of me may be a sink full of dishes, or it may be the next step in making a dream come true. Both matter. Sometimes I experience a day in which each kind of work is a welcome respite from the other, a day in which I can gladly take on what’s in front of me without feeling I should be doing something different. When I can bring that kind of presence to my working, I’m released from the draining effects of second-guessing and doubt. What I’m doing is the right thing, and it’s all that matters.

As Miller says, “At the moment when I’m in the muck, at the moment when I’m doing anything, it is my life, it is all of time, and it is all of me.”

What work is in front of you?

The Things that Save Our Lives

I’ve begun reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World, a title that speaks to the significance of our embodied lives and our daily experience of the world around us. Her book explores the meaning inherent in our physical existence. The chapters describe ways of inhabiting our bodies and our lives that help answer the spiritual longing for more—“ more meaning, more feeling, more connection, more life.”

“The accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life,” she says, “suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it.”

The friend who recommended this book called Taylor’s “an earthy spirituality,” and it is exactly that. She rejects the separation of earth and spirit, of body and soul, found in many spiritual writings. She sees that split as more an injection of the history of Western thought than the essence of a life of faith. She makes the point that Christianity at its heart reveres the life of the body through its reverence for the Incarnation. In her words, Christianity takes body and blood very seriously.

Barbara Brown Taylor is an excellent writer and I am finding both pleasure and meaning in her work. I appreciate the way she describes the practices that keep her grounded in the world and, at the same time, connected to the divine.

But the question that keeps prodding me is one she lifts up in her introduction, a question from which her book arises. Asked to speak at a church gathering, she inquired what the priest wanted her to talk about. In his wisdom, he went straight to the heart of life and asked her to “Come tell us what is saving your life now.”

There’s a question. What is so important right now that our lives depend upon it? How do we hold onto what will give life meaning or at least keep us from the pit of despair? Our answers change, but the question remains essential. I’m learning something from how she answers that question, and thinking about how to answer it for myself. I think conversations in which we can share the things that are saving our life are themselves part of what saves us.

For me, the process of learning to see helps. I’m learning to see how the spiritual resonates in the physical world, learning to see patterns in how life unfolds, learning to more clearly see other people. I think that learning to see is a way of learning compassion, as well.

So I would love to hear—What’s saving your life right now?

The Path Back to the Garden

I’ve recently read two good books: Women Food and God by Geneen Roth and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. At first glance they seem to be about very different subjects—making peace with food and making art. But reading them in close proximity has me thinking about them together and finding connections I didn’t expect.

Geneen Roth’s work arises out of her experience with compulsive eating and her years of helping others separate food from the emotional issues tangled up with eating. But her insight is into addictions of all kinds. Seeking refuge in the addiction is how we abandon ourselves, withholding the attention to our own hearts that can show us what we most need to know.

She describes it as:

an attempt to avoid the absence (of love, comfort, knowing what to do) when we find ourselves in the desert of a particular moment, feeling, situation. In the process of resisting the emptiness, in the act of turning away from our feelings…we ignore what could utterly transform us.

Steven Pressfield’s work is about overcoming the resistance that arises in anyone attempting to do something new. An artist must recognize and conquer the impediments that inevitably arise when we try to shape a new creation, realize a new vision, or express a new idea. Resistance would enforce the status quo, having us abandon our risky calling and with it our highest self.

He writes:

To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius.

Both writers see the work we’re called to do as deeply connected with the divine. Both understand how easily we are kept from that work, and the heartache that ensues. Roth urges us to remain present to ourselves when we’re tempted to flee. Pressfield insists that we show up to do the work even when it feels impossible. They are connected.

Being present to ourselves allows us to do the work. Doing the work makes us present to ourselves. Both place us in the presence of God. Taking refuge in addiction is a kind of resistance to the life we’re called to live. Allowing resistance to come between us and our true work creates a false refuge in which we can never find a fulfilling life. Both are an attempt to hide when God calls our name.

An addiction cuts us off from the Tree of Knowledge standing in the center of the Garden. But as soon as we bring our attention to our behavior, to the thoughts and emotions driving it, the addiction shows us the way back. Likewise resistance keeps us out of the garden we were created to tend. No other work will give us satisfaction until we climb over the walls that stand between us and our calling.

What’s the next step leading back to the garden?

Chaos and Creation

Lately I’ve been reading Barbara C. Sproul’s Primal Myths, and enjoying her insight into creation stories from around the world. As she explains in her introduction, creation stories offer a glimpse of the infinite and unknowable by showing how that absolute reality permeates the world we know. The stories are concerned with the world we experience and its connection to the ground of all being, which lies beyond our experience. Creation myths express the spiritual truth that “the Holy is here as well as everywhere; it is now as well as always….The Holy is immanent as well as transcendent.”

There are many stories of beginnings, but I love those that show the world created out of the chaos that precedes all existence. The creator, standing outside of the categories of being and not-being, encounters a primordial sea of pure potential. From the abyss of unrealized possibilities the creator speaks a word, gives definition to an idea, and confers upon it existence. The creator fashions what has never been from the chaos of all that might be.

Sproul makes an interesting distinction between two kinds of chaos, one full of potential and the other a force for tearing down. A generative expression of chaos is very different from the forces of chaos that threaten to destroy. In Sproul’s words, the chaos that precedes creation “is a fruitful pre-order rather than a negative dis-order.” They’re probably related, but that’s another post.

The chaotic sea of potential is not something to resist; lingering there expands possibilities and allows a new vision to emerge. If we want to do something different from what we’ve done before, we can’t insist on putting thoughts and plans in order too quickly.

At the same time, to thrive we need structure that promotes health and well-being. We need enough order to support our basic needs, so that our attention can be freed to pursue what feeds the soul. A fruitful pre-order is necessary for creative work, but the chaos of disorder gets in the way.

I like to write early in the morning, before I do anything else. It’s a small-scale dip into the primordial chaos, when words carry news from another realm. I do that knowing that when I’m ready I can start the coffee brewing, turn on the computer, get breakfast, a shower, clean clothes, and move into the day.

But in the midst of my early-morning writing today, the power went out. No coffee. No internet. No hairdryer. No light in the bathroom. It made the morning a new challenge, requisitioning more attention than the usual routine requires. I set aside my work early to contend with the changed circumstances.

In a small way, this is an example of how disorder leaches energy from creative work. Establishing the rudiments of life requires effort in the best of circumstances, but without some kind of structure for support it’s hard to do more than get the basics covered.

There’s a limit to what I can control, and there’s only so much I can reasonably (or willingly) do to make life orderly. But I’m working to keep the distinction clear between the pre-order I need to encounter and the disorder that works against me.

What kind of relationship do you have with chaos?

A Definition of Faith

One of the things I love about John O’Donohue’s Anam Ċara is its deeply rooted optimism. It does not deny the darkness in life, yet conveys unwavering trust in life’s goodness. His assurance of life’s faithfulness is itself a wonderful definition of faith:

“Creative expectation brings you healing and renewal. If you could trust your soul, you would receive every blessing you require. Life itself is the great sacrament through which we are wounded and healed. If we live everything, life will be faithful to us.”

This is a powerful statement, one that I’m drawn to and also challenged by. I’m not sure that I want to live everything. There are plenty of difficult, painful, and trying things that I’d like very much to avoid. Yet when those things arrive in spite of every effort to turn them away, there is no choice but to live them. And when that happens, I’d like to believe that walking through a dark valley eventually leads toward healing and wholeness.

How do we learn to trust life, knowing its power to wound? How do we overcome the fear that we won’t be safe, loved, or cared for if we aren’t good enough? How do we cultivate creative expectation when we’re weary and disappointed?

O’Donohue points toward the inherent strength of the soul. He knows there is a place within us that is eternal, where we can go “to be nourished, strengthened, and renewed.” He offers the assurance that “The deepest things that you need are not elsewhere. They are here and now in that circle of your own soul.” The presence of God is within us always.

That presence is manifest in a chorus that echoes throughout scripture: “Do not be afraid.” It is spoken to ancient ancestors and through the words of the prophets. It is the message of angels to Mary and Joseph, to the shepherds who visited the Christ-child, and to the father of John the Baptist. Jesus says to his followers, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.” Holy reassurance seems a universal stepping stone toward a life of genuine faith, one that trusts in the work of God.

Faith understands that the power of God permeates all of life, making growth, healing, and renewal part of the experience of being alive. Faith trusts that God is faithful. Faith frees us from being trapped in our circumstances. Faith rests in the assurance that God is always at work in the world and in us, and invites us to live into a greater vision of all that life can be.

Beyond Personal Growth: Trusting the Mystery of Transformation

It took a long time to make much progress through John O’Donohue’s Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. I mean that in the best of ways. The Gaelic term, anam ċara is literally “soul friend,” and if books can be friends, this is such a one. Most pages hold something rich enough to send me off thinking about it for a while. I’ve kept returning through about two-thirds of it now, and today this is the passage on my mind:

Spirituality is the art of transfiguration. We should not force ourselves to change by hammering our lives into any pre-determined shape. We do not need to operate according to the idea of a predetermined program or plan for our lives. Rather, we need to practice a new art of attention to the inner rhythm of our days and lives. This attention brings a new awareness of our own human and divine presence.

A willingness to grow is a good thing, but the programs and plans available to encourage our development are overwhelming. Bookstore shelves teem with personal growth books, religious and secular, as if we can’t stop flagellating ourselves with agendas for self-improvement. And yes, I’m familiar with these store displays because I’m irresistibly drawn to them. It’s hard to pass up some bit of wisdom that will make me more capable, more fulfilled, more deserving. When an article promises to share Five Steps to Happiness, I can’t help but read it.

I want to grow, but I’d prefer to do it without all the messy uncertainty and annoying unpredictability of not knowing the way. I would love to learn what to do and just do it. But O’Donohue spells out what’s lacking in such a prescribed approach:

It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than the idea of will. Too often people try to change their lives using the will as a kind of hammer to beat their life into proper shape. The intellect identifies the goal of the program, and the will accordingly forces the life into that shape. This way of approaching the sacredness of one’s own presence is externalist and violent. It brings you falsely outside yourself, and you can spend years lost in the wilderness of your own mechanical, spiritual programs. You can perish in a famine of your own making.

Creating, growing, transforming—these are all mysterious processes. They happen underground, in the depths, in the dark. Paying attention while a process unfolds that we can neither control nor rush is a counter-cultural way of life. It can be hard to learn and harder to trust.

But if we lose faith and limit ourselves to the kind of processes we can control, we banish ourselves to the wilderness O’Donohue describes. Will power is hard work, and doesn’t make for a very joyful life. Maybe it’s trust power I need to work on.

What kind of power keeps you moving forward?

Opening to the Sacred

In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong talks about “this hinterland between rationality and the transcendent.” It’s the place where our thought, ideas, and intellectual life have taken us as far as they can, and we need a different kind of knowing in order to experience God.

The intellect is part of our spiritual path. It carries us past the limited notions of God that constrict our assumption of what religious life entails. It brings the fresh breeze of new ideas, which prepare us to see what we have missed. It shows the limitations we have put on God, and the experience of God, of which we were unaware.

But we can’t live into a new faith, or any faith, by intellect alone. An expanded idea of God doesn’t have much impact on who we are or how we live unless we develop a connection to God—asking, seeking, waiting, inviting, listening. In Armstrong’s words, “Religious insight requires not only a dedicated intellectual endeavor to get beyond the ‘idols of thought’ but also a compassionate lifestyle that enables us to break out of the prism of selfhood. . . . It require[s] kenosis, ‘negative capability,’ ‘wise passiveness,’ and a heart that ‘watches and receives.’”

Armstrong’s book mirrors this process. It summarizes and analyzes a long and complex history of how people have understood God. She places our current theological thinking in the context of history, the better to see how we arrived in this place and how best to move forward. Yet her work points to an understanding of God beyond definition or certainty, experienced in mystery, expressed in poetry and in love. It’s a book about what cannot be expressed in books.

Ideas are important; I thrive on them. Yet at a certain point ideas no longer satisfy. It’s like driving to the mountains to go hiking. At some point, you have to get out of the car.

I experience another kind of truth in the light turning gold as the sun rises, the purr of a cat under my hand, the voice of a loved one. These are openings to the sacred, to the sense of being deeply and truly alive.

I’m asking myself whether I’ve spent too much time reading theology and not enough reading poetry. Where is the balance between intellect and experience? Do you see one as more credible, or trustworthy, than the other?

A Church of Unknowing

I’ve just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God (Knopf, 2009). It’s a big book to wade through, but the clarity and grace of her writing make it a pleasure. Even more, her ideas stimulate my own thinking. I won’t try to do a review or a summation, but here is one aspect that resonates with me.

One of the gifts of The Case for God is that Armstrong articulates clearly how the modern Western mind came to equate truth with certainty, knowledge with logic and definitions, and credibility with science. Even more, she shows how this way of thinking resulted in a notion of God disconnected from the heart of religious longing.

Rather than allowing language and logic to carry us to their limit, then point us toward the mystery that cannot be named or known, we settled for a list of God-traits. Our idea of God defined a being, with specific attributes, sitting at the next-higher level of creation. In Armstrong’s words:

The process that should have led to a stunned appreciation of an “otherness” beyond the competence of language ended prematurely. The result is that many of us have been left stranded with an incoherent concept of God. We learned about God at about the same time as we were told about Santa Clause. But while our understanding of the Santa Claus phenomenon evolved and matured, our theology remained somewhat infantile.

We need an understanding of God that holds up to our experience, and allows us to build a life around our faith. Armstrong points to the work of Gianni Vattimo and John D. Caputo as thinkers who embrace a way of seeing God that can speak to our time. She mentions in her notes a collection containing works by both of them, After the Death of God, edited by Jeffrey W. Robbins. I haven’t read it, but I’d like to.

This is how Armstrong describes Caputo’s view of our experience of God, and the unknowing that is “truth without knowledge”:

So how does Caputo see God? Following Derrida, he would describe God as the desire beyond desire. Of its very nature, desire is located in the space between what exists and what does not; it addresses all that we are and are not, everything we know and what we do not know. The question is not “Does God exist?” any more than “Does desire exist?” The question is rather “What do we desire?” Augustine understood this when he asked, “What do I love when I love my God?” and failed to find an answer.

An encounter with such mystery leaves us open, without certainty, thrillingly alive and humbled with awe. It points us to a reality that transcends our ordinary experience, calls us to be awake, and encourages us to seek ways of living out the ineffable truth that we are given.

Is it possible to live out this kind of truth in community? Can a church be built on faith that professes uncertainty and not knowing?

Reason for Hope

I’ve been reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin over the past few weeks, absorbing The Divine Milieu a little at a time. It’s a wise and deeply hopeful book, relevant to the perennial issues and questions that arise in everyday life.

One of those issues is the pain that is part of human experience, as in the pictures we see in the news. Teilhard ascribes suffering not to the will of God, but to the fact that creation is unfinished, still moving toward the full expression of abundant life made possible in God. Humanity may be subject to heartbreak, but we are part of a creation in which God works even through tragedy towards strength and healing. The world in its current state cannot escape “shocks and diminishments,” but God works through them to bring about something better. In Teilhard’s hope-filled worldview, “Not everything is immediately good to those who seek God; but everything is capable of becoming good.”

Teilhard’s deep faith in God’s intention for creation means that suffering is never the last word, and that darkness and confusion will be transcended. Life may sometimes be difficult but it is not meaningless. Our individual experience is part of a larger framework, which helps us resist the darkness and isolation that invites despair.

When I see the world’s compassionate response to disaster, it appears Teilhard is right. When someone says that losing a job eventually led them to more meaningful and satisfying work, it supports what Teilhard is saying. For other hurts there are no pat answers. Sometimes we cannot see the pattern in which pain and loss are a part.

But I want to believe with Teilhard that the aspects of life that seem to yield only meaningless suffering will be places touched by the powerful life force that is God. Believing that the spirit of God within humanity is always working towards a good creation, even through darkness and pain, is a reason to keep going. It’s a reason to know that our lives matter. It’s a reason to hope, and that makes all the difference.

What gives you reason to hope?