Finisterre: Living with Astonishment

A pledge to keep walking beyond where I have once called home, onto where I am challenged to change, reconcile, surrender, and create in ways I hadn’t imagined.

I follow the blog site called the Marginalian by Maria Popova, often amazed at the breadth of her reading and compilation of the wisdom of so many sources that she offers with each post. One of the many topics she broached this week was how we grow old gracefully. In an excerpt she writes, “This open-hearted curiosity, this aura of astonishment, becomes an antidote to the spiritual poison most corrosive to this world—cynicism, that supreme enemy of hope. At any stage of life, the refusal to succumb to cynicism is among our greatest triumphs of the spirit. It is certainly our mightiest force of courage and resistance to the cowardly denouncements of possibility that pock the countenance of humanity.” 

Cynicism. An inclination to believe that people are motivated solely by self-interest. Or also defined as an inclination to question whether something will happen or if its worthwhile. A close relative to pessimism. You may have your own definition and experience.

It is one of my ongoing practices, and a hard one, to not collapse into cynicism, especially with politicians or do-gooders or anyone I don’t trust.  I am aware every time it wins; I feel how it contracts me, makes me feel hard and tight. It gives me a sense of power, but false power. If I’m cynical, I feel in control, not duped, not sentimental. Yet it is always embroidered with fear of some flavor. Cynicism helps cover up the hurt of what‘s happening in the world, almost giving me license to not do anything. I question over and over in myself whether I am just unwilling to look at the frustration and real struggles of this world because they are too painful or has cynicism made me hopeless? I’m also aware every time that I counter cynicism, it feels like some kind of victory of the soul. I feel lighter and closer to what I really want to be. I trust I can respond to the struggles of this world appropriately.

I agree with Popova that this “refusal to succumb” is one of the most important things in my spiritual practice. Popova quotes Nick Cave on his way of resisting the pull of cynicism:

“Absorb into yourself the world’s full richness and goodness and fun and genius, so that when someone tells you it’s not worth fighting for, you will stick up for it, protect it, run to its defense, it is your world they’re talking about, then watch that world to pour itself into you in gratitude. A little smart vampire full of raging love, amazed by the world.”

Steve and I are nearly four thousand miles into our road trip from Alaska today. I have four thousand miles worth of wonder now to talk back to that destructive voice of cynicism. I’m still daily amazed that I am here because 14 billion years ago there was a huge explosion in which much was annihilated, but helium and hydrogen emerged to begin creation. Then a supernova erupted and carbon and other elements were created that continued this process of evolution that the universe was planning all along. That evolution that led to me being here now.  That wonder is deepening as I understand more and more about cosmogenesis. That “aura of astonishment” that Popova writes about is what I want to cultivate more and more as I age and ripen. Maybe five or six years ago, Steve and I changed the license plate on our camper to read WOW SKR. It means “Wow Seeker” to us. “Wow” became our natural mantra as we traveled this country of ours—wows to natural beauty, wows to human creativity and wows to how much these experiences enlivened our souls.  And yes, also wows to how we as humans can destroy and hurt one another and the earth. But just noticing, not succumbing. 

Steve and I catch each other all the time, when cynicism could so easily win. And I ask for grace to accept reality as it is without cynicism, yet with full awareness, not denial. As one of my Diamond Approach fellow students said with amazement upon discovering this in her inquiry, “I guess it’s kind of stupid to reject reality.” It made us all laugh when she said it. We all recognized this foolishness. This truth comes from so many traditions. I recently read an article in the magazine, Spirituality and Health, about the practice of Ho’oponopono–which I have relied on for the practice of forgiveness for many years. Ho’oponopoo Ke Ala means to “make the path that is right more right.” Auntie Mahealani Henry is quoted in the article as saying, “Nothing is wrong—all is in right place, right time, right being—what Hawaiians call pono.  Stop resisting what is…everything is pono—as it is—be grateful..all of it, exactly as it is. Accept it.” 

There is another elder that lived by this wisdom—my mother. Her mantra, “It is what it is.”  Fellow resisters of cynicism. Fellow human beings that want to live with curiosity and trust in this world as it is—able to be astonished and open to what will be. Holders of hope.

Finisterre: Not a Favorite Topic, But– Death

A pledge to keep walking beyond where I have once called home, onto where I am challenged to change, reconcile, surrender, and create in ways I hadn’t imagined.

I just officiated at a memorial for a friend of mine–who is still very much alive. We danced for four hours the night before, singing karoke with thirty or so friends who all gathered for her sixtieth birthday. (She favors dive bars.) But she, who will not let any elephant remain in the room, reminded us at the party that she has a terminal cancer diagnosis, and she wanted to hear all the good things that her friends would say about her before she dies. So, of course, we complied because we love her, and we know she has always lived her life by her own rules. The next morning we gathered on the beach on the Oregon coast to read poems, tell stories, anoint and bless her. So in all its beauty, death was among us, full of life.

One of the readings was from Brother David Steindl-Rast: “It isn’t primarily a practice of thinking of one’s last hour, or of death as a physical phenomenon; it is a seeing of every moment of life against the horizon of death, and a challenge to incorporate that awareness of dying into every moment so as to become more fully alive.”

That is the dance of our lives, living life fully, knowing we will die. Yet it is our cultural tradition to shun death and shy away from even talking about it, unlike my friend who is practicing embracing it. But death is as natural as the seasons, “not as an enemy or a failure, but as a stage of life.” (Ram Dass).

My Diamond Approach teacher, John Davis, remarked on death this past Saturday in an online class that added another twist to this relationship of life and death. He said, “The world thinks that birth comes before death; but in spiritual work, we know that with death, there is a birth.”

Like Steindl-Rast, Davis wasn’t just thinking about the physical death, although the statement holds in this as well. But anytime we have the courage to let something die that no longer serves, there is the possibility of a birth–and usually it is painful, just as physical birth, and yet worth it. Letting an attachment to any person, place, thing or belief is a little death. And it is important to delineate that it is not necessarily ending the relationship, but ending the attachment to it. It is the attachment that keeps one in a small box. There is a three step process in the Diamond Approach that is countercultural to the way we face any death. I have come to trust that always works if I can stay with it; I know that’s a significant if, and I don’t always have the courage to do it; but if it do, it feels like nothing less than grace.

The Theory of Holes:

1. Something is uncomfortable and we can’t fix or change it. We try and we can’t. It feels like a hole. It can feel like hell.
2. Go with the feeling of being in a hole; see what’s there; be curious. Stay with it.
3. Surprise! The hole opens up to some aspect of Essence–like spaciousness or lightness a feeling of compassion or strength or renewed will arise. Like I said, grace. Nothing I have done. But I have been willing.
(See Book One of the Diamond Heart series by A.H. Almaas for a more explicit explanation)

My friend doesn’t know how long she has to live; and I don’t either. But I have a path through the life I am granted on this planet that doesn’t shy away from death and the emotions that arise. Instead, I am encouraged to remain curious, even in the sadness or depression or sense of loss that comes.

It is always possible to be present with what is dying or who is dying, even if that is an old identity of who you think you are.

There is newness and surprise assured to us in all that dies. Until there is some contentment with loss, it is almost impossible to fully realize what life offers.

Full transparency: I am not content with my friend’s diagnosis yet. I am not content that she may die too soon for my liking. That is being human and that is part of my loving her. But knowing her death is a birth beyond what I can imagine, I keep walking the path, willing to be open, waiting to be amazed.

Finisterre: An Emerging Easter

A pledge to keep walking beyond where I have once called home, onto where I am challenged to change, reconcile, surrender, and create in ways I hadn’t imagined.

I write this on Easter morning, remembering all the mornings of my life that I went to an Easter sunrise service at church, awake, expectant and excited, feeling like I too was going to a tomb to mourn a beloved one, only to find that the Beloved is not dead but alive, in new form.

I have been writing and reading much about the expanding universe and my place and purpose in it in the last two blogs, quoting often from the book by Brian Swimme on Cosmogeneis. I am curious that this exploration has deepened during the season of Lent and is culminating during Holy Week and now Easter. As a cradle Christian in a reforming church, one that was founded on questioning tradition (Luther takes on the Catholic church), I feel I am honoring that lineage by being open to understanding the teaching of Christ in ever expanding and evolving ways–not leaving it behind, but allowing its dynamism. If God created the universe, we now know it is not a fixed cosmos; it is one in constant genesis–creating new stars, creating new humans, creating new possibilities, creating new potential. And in me, and in so many, creating a new awareness. “See, I come to make things new,” says Jesus.

I have been leaning into a creation-centered orientation to my spiritual journey for over twenty years, appreciating the Celtic understanding of our relationship to the created world, the indigenous cultures knowing of the elements of creation as their “relatives”, and of the early Christian mystics of Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich who were given visions of Earth as Divine creation. And I have always experienced the Divine in the human body, in awe of how it works, it moves, it heals, it expresses this creation.

Matthew Fox, another creation-centered theologian, writes that religions of the Western world, especially Christianity, were captured by the idea that a human’s ultimate purpose is to be redeemed out of a fallen world. This fixation on escape resulted in modern theology’s slide into irrelevance, most notably among the highly educated and the young. According to Fox, Western Christianity needs to drop its obsession with getting redeemed out of the world and return to a twelfth century theology that the universe is not fallen, but the primary manifestation of divine magnificence. ( pg. 183, Cosmogenesis)

Julian of Norwich writes: “See!” I am God. See! I am in everything. See! I do everything. See! I never lift my hands off my works, nor will I ever. See! I lead everything toward the purpose I ordained it to from without beginning, By the same Power, Wisdom, and Love by which I created it. How could anything be amiss?”

In these words I see the same understanding that cosmologists write about–that the universe knew from the birth of creation that we were coming. I am fascinated with this translation of Julian of Norwich that says, “I ordained it to from without beginning.” A way of saying our creation had a beginning 14 billion years ago, but it was formed from “without beginning.” That which was before time.

Some call it “panentheism”, meaning God is in everything. But it is more true for me to say, everything is in God. I am in God. I am not separate from that which created everything. Or as Thomas Berry says, ” I am the universe in the mode of a human.” I know it is true without fully being able to grasp it.

As Easter emerges in me this year, I am appreciating my many years of observing and honoring Easter, awakening on this morning to all which confirms life here on this amazing planet where we evolved. The greening of the earth, daffodils blooming, and yes, bunnies and chicks and colorful eggs, holding life beneath that shell. The story of an empty tomb.

There is a knowing in our cells of once being water and emerging from water. That as we evolved into this form we have memory of that which falls away and dies, yet that life force that continues on. While I don’t hold to the teachings of original sin or atonement theories of my original faith, I hold onto the Love I was taught that created the world and sustains it.

In this emerging Easter within me, there is a new spring that I cannot even fully name yet. And there is a new form of me that I don’t recognize, like Mary Magdalene mistaking Jesus for the gardener until he called her name. I feel my name being called into new awarenesses. In this emerging Easter which feels a bit confusing and new and disorienting to my human mind, hardly able to take in cosmogenesis, I take a step, putting my foot on the ground of this Earth as divine manifestation, and simply give thanks for this moment in 14 billion years of time. I am here now. I wonder what that will mean. But as Julian of Norwich writes, “What can be amiss?”