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Wednesday, January 20, 2016 – 2:32am
Photo by Kent Miller

Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods

I’ve been on retreat at a cabin in the woods since last Monday — a silent, solitary retreat. As my time here got underway, I took a few notes each day — a sort of mini-journal — and got the idea of stringing them together.

Monday, Jan. 11, 2016
Arrived in mid-afternoon at my rented cabin in the snow-covered Wisconsin countryside. Went inside, lit a fire, and unpacked the car, quickly, motivated by the sub-zero wind chill. Outside, acres of bright fields and dark woods. Inside, just me. Plus enough clothing, food, and books for a week of silence and solitude.

Last night, someone asked if I liked being alone. “It depends,” I said. “Sometimes I’m my best friend. Sometimes I’m my worst enemy. We’ll see who shows up.”

It’s 9:00 p.m., an hour before Quaker midnight, but I’m going to turn in anyway. I’m drowsy and at peace. The fire I’ve been staring into seems to have burned away the worries that tagged along with me.

Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016

Woke up about 5:00 a.m. and lay awake for another hour in the dark, watching my worries rise phoenix-like from the ashes and flap around to get my attention.

“Welcome and entertain them all!” says Rumi in The Guest House.

“Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

Guess I need to have a chat with the “beyond.” Looks like he/she/it didn’t get the memo that I came here for some peace.

Now, a few hours later, I’m feeling that peace again. It came from a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast, all ready simultaneously despite the fact that I’m a certified kitchen klutz. It came as well from looking out on the snowfields, brilliant under the rising sun — but beautifully etched with the shadows of trees and stubble poking up through the snow.

The “beyond” was right: peace comes from embracing the interplay of shadow and light (and a good breakfast doesn’t hurt). After breakfast, I read the January 12 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton, a collection of daily meditations:

“It seems to me that I have greater peace… when I am not ‘trying to be contemplative,’ or trying to be anything special, but simply orienting my life fully and completely towards what seems to be required of a man like me at a time like this.”

Simple and true, but so easily lost in Type-A spiritual striving! What was required of me this morning was simply to make breakfast despite my well-documented ineptitude. The deal is to do whatever is needful and within reach, no matter how ordinary it is or whether I’m likely to do it well.

This afternoon, what I needed was a hike, though the wind chill was six below. I’m no Ernest Shackleton, but I learned long ago that winter will drive you crazy until you get out into it — and I mean “winter” both literally and metaphorically. “In the middle of winter,” said Camus, “I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”

I didn’t discover summer on my hike. But the sun blazed bright on the frozen prairie, warming my face. And high in the cobalt blue sky, a hawk made lazy circles as I’ve seem them do in July. For January, that’s close enough to summer for me!

Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016

I slept poorly last night, and I know why. An hour before bedtime, I binge-ate a box of Jujyfruits while reading a book about spiritual discipline. The book made a few good points but was not well written, and I scarfed down the Jujyfruits as a stimulus to stick with it. My bad. But clear evidence that I could use some discipline!

I feel better now because the oatmeal I made for breakfast — on my second try — was healing. Pure comfort food. On the first try, I got the ratio of oatmeal to water wrong and left it on the burner too long. The pan looks like a grotesque avant garde sculpture of metal and grain: “Agrarian Culture Defeated by Machine.” Again, my bad. But my kitchen klutz credentials have been reinstated.

I guess my theme today is “Screw-ups in Solitude.” In solitude, my bads make me grin. If I committed them in front of others, I’d be embarrassed or angry with myself. Self-acceptance is easier when no one is around.

The Taoist master Chuang Tzu tells about a man crossing a river when an empty skiff slams into his. The man does not become angry, as he would if there was a boatman in the other skiff. So, says Chuang Tzu:

“Empty your own boat as you cross the river of the world.”

In solitude, I can empty my boat. Can I do it when I’m not alone? Maybe.

“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

That quote comes from a book I wrote, so I should probably give it a try!

Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016

Woke up at 2:00 a.m. and found myself regretting some things I got wrong over the past 77 years. Wished I had been kinder, or braver, or less self-centered than I was, and had a hard time remembering the things I got right.

Knowing that the 2:00 a.m. mind is almost always deranged, I got up at 4:00 a.m., dressed, made some coffee, stood out in the dark and cold for a bit, and saw Venus gleaming low in the southeast. The goddess of love: that helped!

Then I read the January 14th entry in A Year With Thomas Merton. Once again,my old friend had a word I need to hear, as he reflected on the complex mix of rights and wrongs in his own life:

I am thrown into contradiction: to realize it is mercy, to accept it is love, and to help others do the same is compassion.

Merton goes on to say that the contradictions in our lives are engines of creativity. It’s true. If we got everything right or everything wrong, there’d be none of the divine discontent or the sense of possibility that drives us to grow. What we get wrong makes us reach for something better. What we get right gives us hope that the “better” might be within reach.

Now I feel ready to step into the day animated by the counsel of Florida Scott-Maxwell:

“You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done… you are fierce with reality.”

I fully intend to get fierce and real today. But before I do that, I’m going to take a nap!

Friday, Jan. 15, 2016

This morning, for no apparent reason, I woke up with a grin, another one of those “guests” Rumi spoke about, “sent as a guide from beyond.” But this time the guest is a welcome lightness, a sense of impending laughter.

Most of my heroes are folks who are no strangers to laughter. Grandpa Palmer comes to mind. The man was proof-positive of William James’s claim that “common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds.” Grandpa taught me to drive when I was 14. First time out, I made a dumb, dangerous move on a back-country Iowa road. When we came to a safe stop, Grandpa was ominously silent for a moment. Then he said, laconically, “If I’d of knowed you was gonna do that, I don’t believe I’d of asked you to drive.” He never said another word about my near-disaster, and for the past 60 years I’ve driven accident-free!

Merton was well known for his sense of humor, a quality not uncommon among monks. In The Sign of Jonas, a deeply moving journal of his early years in the monastery, there’s a line on page 37 that always makes me smile:

“I had a pious thought, but I am not going to write it down.”

And I love this claim, found in a Hindu epic called The Ramayana, as told by Aubrey Menen:

There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.

I’m sure I’ll experience all three today. The first is ever-available, if my heart is open. The second is guaranteed, since wherever I go, there I am. As for the third, I’ll do what I can with it. As Chesterton quipped:

“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016

A cardinal in winter(Parker Palmer)

Today’s opening line in A Year With Thomas Merton, “You can make your life what you want” if you don’t “drive [yourself] on with illusory demands.” I don’t think it’s entirely true that I can make my life what I want. But it would help if I stopped making demands on myself that distort who I really am and what I’m really called to do.

After five days of silence and solitude, many of the demands that hung over me when I came out here have lightened or lifted. Since I’ve done little this week to meet those demands, the lesson seems clear: they were mostly the inventions of an agitated mind. Now that my mind has quieted, its “illusory demands” have vaporized, and I feel a deeper peace.

I remember a story my businessman dad told me about how he dealt with pressure. In his office, he had a desk with five drawers. He’d put today’s mail in the bottom drawer, after moving yesterday’s mail up to the next drawer, and so on. He’d open letters only after they had made it to the top drawer. By that time, he said, half the problems people wrote him about had taken care of themselves, and the other half were less demanding than if he’d read the letters the moment they arrived! As Black Elk said to the children in his tribe when he told a teaching story:

“Whether it happened that way, I do not know. But if you think about it, you will see that it is true.”

Of course, the curse called email did not exist in Dad’s day. Still, his story points the way: make five folders for my email, and use them as Dad said he used his desk drawers. In certain respects, you can make the life you want!

Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016

Sunset in winter(Parker Palmer)

On this last full day of my retreat, I’m still meditating on the opening line of the January 13 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton:

“There is one thing I must do here at my woodshed hermitage… and that is to prepare for my death. But that means a preparation in gentleness…”

What a great leap — from death to gentleness! So different from Dylan Thomas’s famous advice:

“Do not go gentle into that good night…
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

When I was 35, raging seemed right. But at 77, it’s Thomas Merton, not Dylan Thomas, who speaks to me.

The prospect of death — heightened by winter’s dark and cold, by solitude, silence, and age — makes it clear that my calling is to be gentle with the many expressions of life, old and new, that must be handled with care if they are to survive and thrive.

Sometimes, of course, that means becoming fierce in confronting the enemies of gentleness. If that’s a contradiction, so be it! As Merton said in The Sign of Jonas:

“I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

lewis and sharon

Summer’s a pleasant time
Flowers of every colour
The water runs o’er the heugh
And I long for my true lover
Aye waukin-O
Waukin still and weary
Sleep I can get nane
For thinking of my dearie
Ay waukin, O

When I sleep I dream
When I wake I’m eerie
Sleep I can get nane
For thinking of my dearie
Aye waukin-O …

Lonely night comes on
A’ the lave are sleepin’
I think on my bonnie lad
And blur my eyes wi’ weepin’
Aye waukin-O..

Robert Burns

Lewis 2006

wedding picture

love and scotus

It Is Accomplished

JUN 26 2015 @ 1:21PM, Andrew Sullivan

weddingaisle

As Gandhi never quite said,

First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.

I remember one of the first TV debates I had on the then-strange question of civil marriage for gay couples. It was Crossfire, as I recall, and Gary Bauer’s response to my rather earnest argument after my TNR cover-story on the matter was laughter. “This is the loopiest idea ever to come down the pike,” he joked. “Why are we even discussing it?”

Those were isolating  days. A young fellow named Evan Wolfson who had written a dissertation on the subject in 1983 got in touch, and the world immediately felt less lonely. Then a breakthrough in Hawaii, where the state supreme court ruled for marriage equality on gender equality grounds. No gay group had agreed to support the case, which was regarded at best as hopeless and at worst, a recipe for a massive backlash. A local straight attorney from the ACLU, Dan Foley, took it up instead, one of many straight men and women who helped make this happen. And when we won, and got our first fact on the ground, we indeed faced exactly that backlash and all the major gay rights groups refused to spend a dime on protecting the breakthrough … and we lost.

In fact, we lost and lost and lost again. Much of the gay left was deeply suspicious of this conservative-sounding reform; two thirds of the country were opposed; the religious right saw in the issue a unique opportunity for political leverage – and over time, they put state constitutional amendments against marriage equality on the ballot in countless states, and won every time. Our allies deserted us. The Clintons embraced the Defense of Marriage Act, and their Justice Department declared that DOMA was in no way unconstitutional the morning some of us were testifying against it on Capitol Hill. For his part, president George W. Bush subsequently went even further and embraced the Federal Marriage Amendment to permanently ensure second-class citizenship for gay people in America. Those were dark, dark days.

I recall all this now simply to rebut the entire line of being “on the right side of history.” History does not have such straight lines. Movements do not move relentlessly forward; progress comes and, just as swiftly, goes. For many years, it felt like one step forward, two steps back. History is a miasma of contingency, and courage, and conviction, and chance.

But some things you know deep in your heart: that all human beings are made in the image of God; that their loves and lives are equally precious; that the pursuit of happiness promised in the Declaration of Independence has no meaning if it does not include the right to marry the person you love; and has no force if it denies that fundamental human freedom to a portion of its citizens. In the words of Hannah Arendt:

“The right to marry whoever one wishes is an elementary human right compared to which ‘the right to attend an integrated school, the right to sit where one pleases on a bus, the right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement, regardless of one’s skin or color or race’ are minor indeed. Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence; and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs.”

This core truth is what Justice Kennedy affirmed today, for the majority: that gay people are human. I wrote the following in 1996:

Homosexuality, at its core, is about the emotional connection between two adult human beings. And what public institution is more central—more definitive—of that connection than marriage? The denial of marriage to gay people is therefore not a minor issue. It is the entire issue. It is the most profound statement our society can make that homosexual love is simply not as good as heterosexual love; that gay lives and commitments and hopes are simply worth less. It cuts gay people off not merely from civic respect, but from the rituals and history of their own families and friends. It erases them not merely as citizens, but as human beings.

We are not disordered or sick or defective or evil – at least no more than our fellow humans in this vale of tears. We are born into family; we love; we marry; we take care of our children; we die. No civil institution is related to these deep human experiences more than civil marriage and the exclusion of gay people from this institution was a statement of our core inferiority not just as citizens but as human beings. It took courage to embrace this fact the way the Supreme Court did today. In that 1996 essay, I analogized to the slow end to the state bans on inter-racial marriage:

The process of integration—like today’s process of “coming out”—introduced the minority to the majority, and humanized them. Slowly, white people came to look at interracial couples and see love rather than sex, stability rather than breakdown. And black people came to see interracial couples not as a threat to their identity, but as a symbol of their humanity behind the falsifying carapace of race.

It could happen again. But it is not inevitable; and it won’t happen by itself. And, maybe sooner rather than later, the people who insist upon the centrality of gay marriage to every American’s equality will come to seem less marginal, or troublemaking, or “cultural,” or bent on ghettoizing themselves. They will seem merely like people who have been allowed to see the possibility of a larger human dignity and who cannot wait to achieve it.

I think of the gay kids in the future who, when they figure out they are different, will never know the deep psychic wound my generation – and every one before mine – lived through: the pain of knowing they could never be fully part of their own family, never befully a citizen of their own country. I think, more acutely, of the decades and centuries of human shame and darkness and waste and terror that defined gay people’s lives for so long. And I think of all those who supported this movement who never lived to see this day., who died in the ashes from which this phoenix of a movement emerged. This momentous achievement is their victory too – for marriage, as Kennedy argued, endures past death.

I never believed this would happen in my lifetime when I wrote my first several TNR essays and then my book, Virtually Normal, and then the anthology and the hundreds and hundreds of talks and lectures and talk-shows and call-ins and blog-posts and articles in the 1990s and 2000s. I thought the book, at least, would be something I would have to leave behind me – secure in the knowledge that its arguments were, in fact, logically irrefutable, and would endure past my own death, at least somewhere. I never for a millisecond thought I would live to be married myself. Or that it would be possible for everyone, everyone in America.

But it has come to pass. All of it. In one fell, final swoop.

Know hope.

kennedy_2.png.CROP.promo-mediumlarge

Rabbi Will Berkovitz is the senior vice president of Repair the World, a national organization that seeks to make service a defining element of American Jewish life. (RNS) On the eve of the Day of Atonement, the story goes, when the house was quiet, the tailor went to the closet and took out a ledger.

“Master of the Universe,” he said, “the time has come for You and me to reckon up our sins for this past year.” He began by listing the sins he had committed. Then he went back to the closet, took out a thicker, heavier notebook and said, “Lord, first I listed my sins, and now I will list Yours.”

When he was finished, he said, “To tell the truth, You owe me more than I owe You, but I’d just as soon not keep strict accounts. We are commanded to forgive the wrongs that have been done to us. Why don’t I just forgive You and You forgive me?”

So much of what we do during Yom Kippur is a recount of our sins — great and small. The tradition teaches: For transgressions between individuals and God, Yom Kippur atones. We ask God for forgiveness.

But increasingly, I am feeling like the tailor, that we are not the only ones who need forgiveness.

I have lost friends and family to cancer this year, and I feel outraged at God. I have been sickened by the images from mudslides, hurricanes and earthquakes, not to mention the suffering we humans bring upon each other in the name of religion, politics or just vengeance.

There are times when I feel like washing my hands of this abusive relationship. I want to scream into the whirlwind, into the void I was once sure God filled. I want to scream: “I don’t believe in you! We are alone in the universe. There is no master plan. There is no Power or Creator.”

God may not ask for my forgiveness, but yet I feel a need in my soul to struggle, like a drowning man, to forgive God for all God’s sins against humanity. If I do not forgive God, how can I believe in God? How can I stand and tell others to ask for God’s forgiveness?

When Ebola orphans thousands of children in Africa, I find it very difficult to stand, bow and recite the Barachu — a praise of God. What brings a mother to stand and recite the Kaddish — a declaration of God’s greatness — over her deceased daughter? Yes, I believe in the great and small miracles that surround us every day. And I believe God is present everywhere if we only look.

But that does not absolve God. I am demanding God take responsibility. I demand an accounting.

After I have listed the places where I was not my highest self, the places where I fell, after I continue that hard uncompromising look into my soul, after I ask for forgiveness, I will leave a silence. And then, like the tailor, I will list God’s sins against humanity. The places where God has tested the limits of my faith, those crevasses filled with doubt, anger and disappointment. The vast wasteland of uncertainty and frustration.

My religious life feels like one epic struggle to believe there is some Higher Order in the universe. When I am standing in a place of prayer, I bring my confusion and my doubts. But I ultimately strive to believe God is El Elyon, God on High. I may at times feel like I am talking to myself, but I struggle to believe I am standing before Ha’ribono shel ha’olam – the Master of the Universe. I want to believe there is a God to serve. And I believe that God needs forgiveness. If not for God’s sake, then for my own.

By forgiving God, I make God relevant in my life. By forgiving God, I can allow room for my doubts, my struggles, my confusion. By forgiving God, I maintain my relationship and a connection with God — no matter how tenuous it may be at times.

It is not easy to forgive, but I will.

Because I do not want to write off the relationship.

Because there is too much to be lost by simply walking away.

Because I want my young children to develop their own relationships and come to their own conclusions.

Because despite the pain, sorrow and suffering, I want my universe full of miracles, not devoid of them.

Because I do not want to be one more angry, old cynic in the world.

I want to believe a voice still calls out from Sinai, from heaven.

I want to engage in the eternal conversations with the ancestors and sages. Despite it all, I want to live my life in praise — and awe — in wonder and hope. Even if I am wrong, even if at the end there is nothing but darkness. Despite my overwhelming desire to walk the other way, I will strive to forgive. Despite it all, I want to surround myself with the people of Jacob, of Israel, with those who struggle with God.

That is why I will forgive God.

And as the final shofar blasts and the gates of heaven close, I want to feel I am forgiven by God. I have faith in the power of that two-way forgiveness. When I forgive God, God becomes a force in the world, not some dusty ancient relic. When I forgive God, God reigns. And God regains some exalted place in the universe and in my life.

So, I will take the lead and forgive God. I will shout forgiveness into the whirlwind. And please God, forgive us. Please God, forgive me.

(Rabbi Will Berkovitz is chief executive officer of Jewish Family Service of Seattle, a 122-year-old agency that delivers essential human services.) 

KRE/MG END BERKOVITZ

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory