Bob Schwartz

Tag: Spirituality

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.

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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

Selichot, Angels and Heschel

I lit a candle
For the care of those
In the storm’s way
The light answered:
It is up to you.

The Jewish High Holy Days—the Days of Awe—begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, on Wednesday evening, September 20. In preparation for that, on Saturday night, September 16, are the prayers and contemplation of Selichot.

I’ve written before about a controversial Selichot prayer, Machnisei Rachamim (Conveyers of Compassion):

Conveyers of compassions, obtain our mercy before the Master of compassion,
Makers of prayer, make our prayer heard before the Hearer of prayer.
Makers of wailing, make our wail heard, before the Hearer of wailing.
Conveyers of tears, convey our tears before the King who yields to tears.
Strive to raise up supplication, raise up supplication and plea,
Before the King, high and exalted. The King, high and exalted.

The controversy is theological and has gone on for centuries, with the prayer being redacted and even deleted among some Jewish communities and traditions. Machnisei Rachamim asks angels to serve as intermediaries for prayer, and some claim that this is wholly inconsistent with the Jewish theology of an unintermediated and direct line between Jews and God. One contemporary rabbi who opposes it claims that its continued recitation is a symptom of Judaism becoming “too spiritual.”

Rather than weighing in on this dispute, and being a Jew who is probably “too spiritual” for some (that is, whether it is angels, saints or bodhisattvas, humankind needs all the spiritual help it can get), I turned to the greatest of modern Jewish theologians, Abraham Joshua Heschel, for some thoughts on angels. I found this story he told, which is not only about angels, but about the Torah portion read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah—the akeda, the binding of Isaac.

At a Vietnam War protest in 1967, Heschel talked about being a child in Poland, learning about the akeda from his rabbi. Heschel said:

“Isaac was on the way to Mt. Moriah with his father. There he lay on the altar, bound, waiting to be sacrificed. My heart began to beat very fast. I actually sobbed with pity for Isaac. Behold, Abraham now lifted the knife and how my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly the voice of the angel was heard, ‘Abraham, lay not thine hand upon the lad for now I know that thou fearest God.’ And here I broke into tears and wept aloud. ‘Why are you crying?’ asked my rabbi. ‘You know that Isaac was not killed.’ I said to him, still weeping, ‘But rabbi, suppose the angel had come a second too late!’ The rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot ever come too late.”

And then Heschel said: “An angel cannot come too late, my friends, but we, made of flesh and blood, we may come too late”

Houses of Worship as Reminders on the Street

We often see houses of worship on our streets, from modest buildings to grand cathedrals. Some people have mixed feelings when they do.

A growing number think that organized religion is a negative or even destructive force. Some people are happy to see their own brand of churches, synagogues and mosques on display, but are not so sure about other kinds. Some are irked by the costly beauty and splendor, no matter how pleasant the view, when other needs are so great.

These are all legitimate concerns. Yet walking past houses of worship is also a reminder, no matter how sectarian those buildings, of something greater and deeper—a reminder that may be missing from everyday lives. You don’t have to believe or participate in a particular tradition, or in any tradition, to know that things are out of balance. You may think that some expressions of faith actually contribute to that imbalance, and some assuredly do. But seeing the best of spirit embodied in our streetscape can also be a good reminder of who we can be.

From Thomas Merton, The Street Is for Celebration in Love and Living:

A city is something you do with space.

A street is a space. A building is an enclosed space. A room is a small enclosed space.

A city is made up of rooms, buildings, streets. It is a crowd of occupied spaces. Occupied or inhabited? Filled or lived in?

The quality of a city depends on whether these spaces are “inhabited” or just “occupied.” The character of the city is set by the way the rooms are lived in. The way the buildings are lived in. And what goes on in the streets.

Pictured above: Benedictine Monastery, Tucson, Arizona.

St. Anthony of Padua

You don’t have to be religious, Christian or Catholic to appreciate saints. Every tradition recognizes those whose lives, thoughts, or actions are worthy of attention. The particulars may not suit your sense or sensibilities, but these people represent the possibilities of being human—possibilities to which we may not personally aspire, but possibilities that still may inspire.

Today is the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua. The reasons for his sainthood involve his devotion and his preaching of the faith (he is often pictured with the baby Jesus and a book). His preaching was reportedly not limited to people:

Once, when St. Anthony of Padua attempted to preach the true Gospel of the Catholic Church to heretics who would not listen to him, he went out and preached his message to the fish. This was not, as liberals and naturalists have tried to say, for the instruction of the fish, but rather for the glory of God, the delight of the angels, and the easing of his own heart. When critics saw the fish begin to gather, they realized they should also listen to what Anthony had to say. (Catholic Online: Saints & Angels)

St. Anthony is the patron saint of the poor and of travelers, but is best known in popular Catholic culture as the patron saint of lost things. Though some have invoked him—successfully and unsuccessfully—with a simple childlike verse (“Dear St. Anthony look around/Something’s lost that can’t be found”), the story and meaning is explained more fully by others:

Since the seventeenth century Anthony has been frequently invoked as the finder of lost articles. When a novice took his Psalter without permission, Anthony prayed for its return. After a frightening apparition, the novice rushed to restore the book to its rightful owner. (Lives of the Saints: From Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa)

In 1224, Francis entrusted his friars’ pursuits of studies to Anthony. Anthony had a book of psalms that contained notes and comments to help when teaching students and, in a time when a printing press was not yet invented, he greatly valued it. When a novice decided to leave the hermitage, he stole Anthony’s valuable book. When Anthony discovered it was missing, he prayed it would be found or returned to him. The thief did return the book and in an extra step returned to the Order as well. (Catholic Online: Saints & Angels)

Anthony should be the patron of those who find their lives completely uprooted and set in a new and unexpected direction….God did with Anthony as God pleased—and what God pleased was a life of spiritual power and brilliance that still attracts admiration today. He whom popular devotion has nominated as finder of lost objects found himself by losing himself totally to the providence of God. (Franciscan Media)

From the National Shrine of St. Anthony:

Prayer to Find What Is Lost

St. Anthony, when you prayed, your stolen book of prayers was given back to you. Pray now for all of us who have lost things precious and dear. Pray for all who have lost faith, hope or the friendship of God. Pray for us who have lost friends or relatives by death. Pray for all who have lost peace of mind or spirit. Pray that we may be given new hope, new faith, new love. Pray that lost things, needful and helpful to us, may be returned to our keeping.

Feeding the poor. Preaching to fishes. Finding lost things. Sounds like a full feast day.

Wisdom House

Wisdom House

I see those
Who visited the house
Some knocked
Stopped for a chat or meal
Stayed for a weekend or season
Or never left.
There is no guest book
But some signed it anyway.
One left a note:
You know
This isn’t your house.