Bob Schwartz

Category: Spirituality

Clearing the Chessboard

Searching for Bobby Fischer is a movie about a real life chess prodigy. In a memorable scene, his teacher sweeps the pieces off the chessboard, so the child can better concentrate on the actual state of play, undistracted by the apparent state of play.

Meditation and related attention practices are all about clearing the chessboard. What comes next depends on the context, whether it’s a way to relax or a search for enlightenment. The point is that the apparent state of play, the pieces on the chessboard, are distractions and may become obsessions. Only by focusing on the empty chessboard can you see the game for what it is.

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Marianne Williamson may not belong in the field of Democratic candidates, but she has a message and a point (Sowing the Seeds of Love edition)

Of the two dozen people running for the Democratic presidential nomination, a number have no prospect of being on the ticket, as president or vice-president. They are presumably running to advance their careers, to influence the direction of the party and/or to send a message.

Marianne Williamson is one who has no prospect, but does have a few messages. She voiced those messages in the debate—messages that were variously mocked or treated kindly, sometimes both.

In her closing statement, she said this:

This man [Trump] has reached into the psyche of the American people and he has harnessed fear for political purposes. So, Mr. President — if you’re listening — I want you to hear me please: You have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out. So I, sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field, and sir, love will win.

She is absolutely right, at least about the lack of and need for love in our politics. It may sound wholly New Age and non-pragmatic, but America is indeed suffering from spiritual dis-ease. How we contracted it is an interesting question for a later time, but right now it is clear that unless and until we start treating it, versions of the last two years are going to keep repeating themselves.

I presume that when Marianne Williamson talks about love, it is an umbrella expression for all the beneficent qualities featured in all of our religious traditions—compassion, empathy, selflessness, courage, care, etc. All the things that we now discover are missing from some high-level public leaders and from some members of the body politic.

So we owe Marianne Williamson a bit of thanks. And a song:

Neighbor

Neighbor

the next door neighbor
never visited
will live forever
but not you

©

Note: It is literally true that we might live next door to someone we never meet or talk to. It is a missed opportunity, the extent of which we will never know.

But the mention of a neighbor who lives forever takes this out of the literal. Matters we are familiar with—spiritual matters for example—might have a close neighboring tradition or school that we learn late about, if ever. That too can be a missed opportunity, or if we knock and walk in, a new and enlightening discovery. Just one door away.

Merton’s Last Year: Wisdom is No Vaccine

I’ve been reading the journals of Thomas Merton, and here is a thought. There is never a level of wisdom and awareness that removes doubt, no matter who you are. Never a level of wisdom and awareness that answers all the questions. Only better doubts and questions, unresolved and unanswered.

If you pay attention, you’ve noticed that people you admire, people you study and may try to emulate, are “only human.” They suffer from physical, psychological or soul problems, just like anybody else. This applies to people who may have served, or are still serving, as spiritual guides.

I’ve been with Thomas Merton a long time, reading him, reading about him, visiting his abbey and his Center. I am well aware of some of the questions and doubts that dogged him, especially about the choices of life he had made. Of course, Merton had pushed the envelope and managed a few tricks that benefited us and him. Entering a cloistered and mostly silent order, he produced thousands of words that reached around the world.

One of the things I have not read enough of are his journals, which he kept for decades, and which occupy seven published volumes. I had read his Asian Journal, which he kept on what was to be his final trip, when he was accidentally killed on December 8, 1968 in Bangkok. Aside from that, I had not read much of the journal of his last year, a time when Merton was more expressly reviewing his life and choices.

Knowing what we know about events, some think that Merton “sensed” he was heading towards an unexpected end. But Merton always knew there was an end, and Merton never stopped investigating, whether he had a few more days or, as we would like, many more years.

I am working my way through the last volume of his journal, covering October 1967 through December 1968 (The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey, The Journals of Thomas Merton Book 7). Along with his valuable observations about America and the world in that tumultuous time, we get close to a great man wondering whether the things he had done, for himself and others (like us), was the best use of a life. An unmarried Catholic monk in rural Kentucky, but also a very worldly man, he wonders about other religious traditions, about getting married, about living in California.

Wisdom does not provide immunity, wisdom is no vaccine. If anything, that is wisdom itself.

The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas—sometimes referred to as the Fifth Gospel—is one of a number of ancient texts about the life and words of Jesus that did not become part of the New Testament canon. Many of these, including Thomas, can be found in Marvin Meyer’s volume The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus: The Definitive Collection of Mystical Gospels and Secret Books about Jesus of Nazareth. Meyer, a brilliant scholar and translator who was an eminent expert on these gospels, explains:

The Gospel according to Thomas is an ancient collection of sayings of Jesus said to have been recorded by Judas Thomas the Twin. Unlike other early Christian gospels, which typically consist of narrative accounts interpreting the life of Jesus of Nazareth and culminating in descriptions of his death, the Gospel of Thomas focuses specifically upon sayings of Jesus. The document claims that these sayings themselves, when properly understood, communicate salvation and life: “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death” (saying 1).

The Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas came to light with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, within which the Gospel of Thomas is to be found as the second tractate, or document, of Codex II. According to Muhammad Ali of the al-Samman clan, who has told his story to James M. Robinson, this remarkable manuscript discovery took place around December 1945….

As a gospel of wisdom, the Gospel of Thomas proclaims a distinctive message. In contrast to the way in which he is portrayed in other gospels, particularly New Testament gospels, Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas performs no physical miracles, reveals no fulfillment of prophecy, announces no apocalyptic kingdom about to disrupt the world order, and dies for no one’s sins. Instead, Thomas’s Jesus dispenses insight from the bubbling spring of wisdom (saying 13), discounts the value of prophecy and its fulfillment (saying 52), critiques end-of-the-world, apocalyptic announcements (sayings 51, 113), and offers a way of salvation through an encounter with the sayings of “the living Jesus.”

The readers of the Gospel of Thomas are invited to join the quest for meaning in life by interpreting the oftentimes cryptic and enigmatic “hidden sayings” of Jesus. They are encouraged to read or hear the sayings, interact with them, and discover for themselves the interpretation and meaning. Saying 2 describes the vicissitudes of such a quest for insight: “Jesus said, ‘Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be troubled. When one is troubled, one will marvel and will reign over all’”. That is to say, the quest for meaning is to be undertaken with commitment; and while the way taken may be upsetting, people will attain insight and rest if only they persevere. For it is in the quest and through the quest that people find themselves and God. Then, according to the Gospel of Thomas, they discover that God’s kingdom is not only outside them but also inside them, that they are “children of the living father” (saying 3), and that they are essentially one with the savior. Saying 108 makes this point by using mystical language: “Jesus said, ‘Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to that person.’”

Following are a few of the sayings; spiritual explorers are urged to find and read them all. Some sayings will seem familiar, sounding much like famous sayings found in the canonical gospels. Others will be new, obscure and mysterious—as they are meant to be.


The Gospel of Thomas

(2)
Yeshua said,
Seek and do not stop seeking until you find.
When you find, you will be troubled.
When you are troubled,
you will marvel and rule over all.

(5)
Yeshua said,
Know what is in front of your face
and what is hidden from you will be disclosed.
There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.

(7)
Yeshua said,
Blessings on the lion if a human eats it,
making the lion human.
Foul is the human if a lion eats it,
making the lion human.
[Meyer’s note: This obscure saying seems to appeal to the lion as a symbol of all that is passionate and bestial: the passions may either be consumed by a person or consume a person.]

(18)
The students said to Yeshua,
Tell us how our end will be.

Yeshua said,
Have you discovered the beginning and now are seeking the end?
Where the beginning is, the end will be.
Blessings on you who stand at the beginning.
You will know the end and not taste death.

(26)
Yeshua said,
You see the speck in your brother’s eye
but not the beam in your own eye.
When you take the beam out of your own eye,
then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

(31)
Yeshua said,
A prophet is not accepted in the hometown.
A doctor does not heal those who know the doctor.

(34)
Yeshua said,
If a blind person leads a blind person,
both will fall in a hole.

(42)
Yeshua said,
Be passersby.
[Meyer’s note: Or, “Be wanderers,” or, much less likely, “Come into being as you pass away” (Coptic shope etetenerparage). A parallel to this saying appears in an inscription from a mosque at Fatehpur Sikri, India: “Jesus said, ‘This world is a bridge. Pass over it, but do not build your dwelling there.’”]

(51)
His students said to him,
When will the dead rest?
When will the new world come?
He said to them,
What you look for has come
but you do not know it.

(52)
His students said to him,
Twenty-four prophets have spoken in Israel
and they all spoke of you.

He said to them,
You have disregarded the living one among you
and have spoken of the dead.

(54)
Yeshua said,
Blessings on you the poor,
for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

(70)
Yeshua said,
If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you.
If you have nothing within you,
what you do not have within you will kill you.

(113)
His students said to him,
When will the kingdom come?

Yeshua said,
It will not come because you are watching for it.
No one will announce, “Look, here it is,”
or “Look, there it is.”
The father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth
and people do not see it.
 

Perpetual Adoration

Perpetual Adoration

“It is with great sadness we had to make the decision to close our beautiful monastery in Tucson, Arizona as of February 26, 2018. Our sisters have relocated to the motherhouse in Clyde, Missouri.”

In hoc signo:
No Trespassing.
Benedictine Monastery of the
Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.
The sisters have left the building
St. Benedict Jesus God too.
The sisters to Missouri
The rest homeless for now.
Carved wooden doors locked
Bushes for the butterflies
Cut back and soon gone.
Who by fire
Who by water
Who by sledgehammer
Wrecking ball dynamite.
After the noisy dusty struggle
Mountains abide.

©

Note: For an earlier post about this building, sold to be replaced by something residential or commercial, see Houses of Worship As Reminders on the Street.

Grist for the Mill

Grist for the Mill

This mill does not live
By wheat alone
Barley spelt corn
Amaranth rice
Welcome and ground
Wherever whoever
Cultivates and harvests
This mill is for all
Who bake cook and eat
And might be hungry

©

A Sense of Wonder: The Greatest Research Question Ever

“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”
― Abraham Joshua Heschel

As part of its epic Religious Landscape Study, the Pew Research Center asked Americans what may be the greatest research question ever: How frequently do you feel a sense of wonder about the universe?

Possible responses were: At least once a week; Once or twice a month; Several times a year; Seldom/never; Don’t know. The results were analyzed and reported according to a variety of factors, including by religious group, generation, gender, race, ethnicity, immigrant status, income, education, marital status, belief in God, frequency of prayer, frequency of meditation, belief in heaven and hell, party affiliation, and many more. The results were also reported by state.

Within religious traditions, the highest percentage of those who feel a weekly sense of wonder about the universe are Jehovah’s Witness (62%), Muslim (56%) and Buddhist (55%). The highest percentage for seldom or never are Historically Black Protestant (29%), Catholic (27%) and Mainline Protestant (25%).

Among the states, the people of Nevada (54%) and Arizona (53%) lead the nation in weekly wonder, with Oregon (51%) and New Mexico (50%) not far behind. Delaware has the distinction of having the lowest percentage of people who feel a sense of wonder once a week (37%). The state with the highest percentage of people who seldom or never feel a sense of wonder is Alabama (34%).

This is just one of the many questions that Pew and other researchers ask about religious beliefs, attitudes and practices. What makes this one question so special?

It gets to the heart of what makes religion and spirituality so essential. Whatever your beliefs, whatever your status, and whatever your experience, this is what you should have learned by now—or eventually will: We are part of the universe, not masters of it, even if our ego, power and learning lead us to believe otherwise. Wonder is the acknowledgment and realization of that.

How frequently do you feel a sense of wonder about the universe?

 

 

 

 

 

Table-Clearing Religion

A splendidly set and provisioned table can be lovely and satisfying, especially when you’re hungry and there is a great cook at work.

But there is also a simple table, before anything has been laid on it, before the bowls and platters have been brought from the kitchen. Or the same table after it has been cleared.

Which why we might appreciate those religious movements that set a simple table, or try to clear one that has been cluttered, even if the clutter seems beneficial.

Table clearing is a phenomenon among many traditions. Jesus proposed something like it, as did the Baal Shem Tov. Some Christian sects are grounded in it, such as the Shakers. That sort of table clearing is also an essence of Zen. The value of various complex Buddhist movements may not be denied, but in the beginning the Buddha himself tried all that was being offered, and ended up just sitting.

Sit at whichever table suits you, and eat whatever you like from it. But maybe consider the elegant simplicity of the table before it is set, or after it is cleared.

Candle for the Least

Candle for the Least

The first will be last.

Too many candles
Too many in need
To choose.
The last one
In the last row.
Outside
Barge through
A cloud of butterflies.

© Bob Schwartz