In 1970, German artist Kurt Vostell created "Concrete Traffic," a Cadillac almost totally encased in a shell of concrete. There is a sister to this piece in Berlin. The short-lived Fluxus art movement privileged happenings and this mummified car, a symbol of privilege and status in its times, is one of the most famous relics of Fluxus. You can see this conserved artifact now at a garage of the University of Chicago.
In June of 2017 I viewed this piece in person. Honestly, even though I appreciate emerging art generally, I had to ask the question: Is this piece really art? In what sense? The piece is, in all its bulk and heaviness, troubling.
But I began to see it as a metaphor of how we become encased in our egos, our carefully protected and conserved selves. Truth be told, I spend a lot of time re-running my own image and narrative of myself. One Buddhist author I am reading these days even uses a verb "to self" as a description of the constant self-referential buzz that goes on in our heads. Yes, I am most often encased in selfing.
In spiritual direction, a challenge to both the seeker and the spiritual director is to gently and compassionately break through--chisel through--the encasement and mummification that our souls, our spirits seem to prefer. There is nothing really porous about the mummified Cadillac that Vostell created. Yet, in spiritual direction we are looking for porousness, the ability to expand and to breath. Spirit and breath become almost synonymous.
When someone tells me that "God will never forgive me" that is a Concrete Traffic moment. Or, when another person retires but continues to try to live the busy life of whatever she or he did in the work place, that is also a Concrete Traffic moment. Encased. Mummified. Unchanging. How can I get out of my encasement, whatever holds me from exhaling and inhaling, whatever keeps me from spiritually expanding?
I wonder: What does this metaphor of the concrete encased Cadillac from the seventies say to you?
From April 19th through the 26th, I traveled from Indianapolis across the Canadian border to Toronto, Ontario for the 2017 conference of Spiritual Directors International.
The opening plenary began with a lively and often humorous dialogue with full audience exercises led by the Inter Faith Amigos (www.interfaithamigos.com). These are three clergy from Sufi Muslim, Christian (United Church of Christ) and Jewish traditions who have been dedicated for over fifteen years to "supporting more effective interfaith dialogue that can bring greater collaboration on the major social and economic issues of our times."
Following the opening exercises by the Inter Faith Amigos, Rene Thomas Hill of the Mohawk nation shared the Mohawk story of the beginnings of all that is. Rene Thomas Hill is a teacher at Hamilton University and is a traditional counselor and healer. What I found most impactful in her presentation was a sense of gratitude for all that is, living and not living, including things I might not normally name such as mud, cauliflower, carrots, beans . . . . she noted that we must be grateful to these parts of creation because they care for us.
In the following days, I enjoyed especially the workshops that were offered. I attended four of my selection. They included one on group spiritual direction, another on "the appreciative way" or a posture of welcome and affirmation of directees and another describing a very innovative way of helping individuals work through discernment issues when they have a number of options and are stuck with a glut of possibilities.
One workshop that I particularly enjoyed was on Lectio Media, which is a way of dealing with and praying with images that come to us through the visual media. The leader of this workshop portrayed it as a kind of divine interaction with mass media. I think that for some persons, it would provide a way to be in touch with media and to pray the news that we receive. Maybe there is a Saturday morning "Souladventure" (informal occasional gatherings that I host in my house) on this where a number of us could practice the method. What do you think?
Even though the conference was held at the Lester Pearson International Airport, I opted for financial reasons to stay at Victoria University guest housing right in downtown Toronto. Since I was downtown anyway, there were some opportunities to see Toronto again (I was last there in 2013). The interfaith theme jumps out everywhere in Toronto because of the incredible diversity of the population.
One intercultural and interfaith connection that was very powerful was my visit to the Aga Khan Museum just before the conference began. Opening in 2014 and designed by Pritzker architecture award winner, Fumihiko Maki, this wonderful building and grounds constitute an aesthetic and spiritual oasis. The museum highlights Islamic art, Iranian art and Muslim culture. The five hours I spent in the building and on the grounds felt almost cleansing and life giving. I was appreciative of the clean lines of the building, the simplicity, the attention to detail and, above all, the attention to light everywhere. And I learned a great deal about Islamic artistic traditions and medias.
In addition to the conference, I met an old friend of the United Church of Canada, Rev. Jim Kirkwood, from my African mission days for breakfast; went to a wonderful exhibit of Georgia O'Keefe works at the Art Gallery of Ontario; and attended the beautiful sung Sunday morning Eucharist at St. James Cathedral.
Throughout the experience in Ontario, I was aware that this is Canada's 150th anniversary. There were celebratory references all around. People arriving at or leaving from Lester Pearson International Airport were greeted with this huge banner commemorating the event.
Actually, I did not travel to the Spiritual Directors International Conference by plane but opted for the much grittier and (not insignificant) cheaper means of Greyhound travel. Before I left I started wondering if I--a 73 year old--should embark on an a fifteen hour one way Greyhound adventure. But as a young person and in Peace Corps and international mission, I traveled often by bus and feel used to it. So off I went! What I learned very quickly was that the interfaith motif was present most of the time in the buses themselves. I remember on the way home that I noticed Muslim women, a Hindu woman from southern Asia, an Orthodox Jewish youth sitting just next to me and Latinos, African Americans and even a French couple. There were several Amish who, at their stop, were met by horse and buggies!
So, not just the conference but Toronto itself and the travel to and from reminded me that I am a spiritual director in a world of many identities and cultures and religions. I know that all of these rich expressions of humanity provide materials for good discernment of the Spirit's movement and presence . . . . .. . . I came home knowing of the presence of the Spirit in each person.
I first found this tree on the On Being broadcast with Krista Tippett. It is produced by http://www.contemplativemind.org which kindly allows its use in educational situations.
I decided to post it here because it is a way of imagining the spiritual or contemplative life that is visual and powerful, using the roots and branches of a tree as the central image.
If you go to the above link, you can download a blank chart for you to use in visualizing your own contemplative life.
This is another way of charting a Rule of Life or Rhythm of Life that for two millenia monks and nuns as well as many others have found to be essential.
What do you think of this chart?
Last week Frank and I returned from two weeks in Quebec. We tried to balance nature (staying in a yurt in Jacques Cartier National Park near Quebec city, moose viewing, whale watching in the St. Lawrence River near Tadoussac) with culture (old Quebec City and Montreal, practicing French, visiting sites).
One of the sites that we visited was the great 350 year old pilgrimage site of the Basilica of Ste. Anne de Beaupre which is visited by more than a million persons a year. The building itself is beautiful and much care seems to have been taken not to commercialize the inside of the chapels and nave with trinkets. Unlike many famous churches, people are scattered throughout the large space actually praying. I entered the perpetual adoration chapel for a time of quiet in the presence of the holy elements.
After visiting the building and grounds, we were sitting on an outdoors bench and a sixty-something gentleman in a wheat colored alb and deacon's sash and straw hat began walking the path near which we were sitting and relaxing our over-used and ageing feet. He was using his rather large rosary. In a way he seemed to be a Quebecois Friar Tuck.
When he approached us, I asked him if he was a deacon, since I had noticed the diagonal sash. "Oui, Monsieur," he replied. "I staff the blessings office!" He then described his work in "the blessings office" with the many pilgrims who come to the church hoping for a blessing or healing of some kind. Basically, he listens and prays.
It seemed clear to me during my walk through the basilica that blessings are given and received in this holy space. On several walls are crutches, walkers, canes that mobility impaired pilgrims have left behind as a testament to their renewed wholeness after visiting Ste. Anne.
We chatted with the deacon for a few minutes. He looked at us intently at the end and said "Would you like to be blessed?" "Sure," I said, "I can use all the blessing I can get." He prayed that God would bless us in our lives and our journeys. All I could say at the end, much moved, was "Merci, merci." I needed that prayer under those blue skies.
Strangely, as a religious brother with the Community of the Gospel and as spiritual director, I am sometimes asked to provide a blessing. Less often, I am a recipient of these kindly prayers. Even though I was actually having a good day (except for the tired tourist feet!) I did not wake up thinking that I needed a blessing. Yet, even in my good spirits, I did need that blessing, that reminder of God's love.
On the return trip to the United States, I thought a lot about this deacon (we never even asked each other's names) and the "blessings office." In so many ways, he himself is an ambulatory blessings office handing out reminders of sacred presence and abundance to those he meets.
And I reflected on the possibility that each individual can be a walking blessings office to each person who crosses her path. Why not forgot all the big projects and programs of what we sometimes misname "ministry" and just offer God's blessing to a hurting world? I remember in my Disciples of Christ Sunday School class the hymn that was still sung in those days with the refrain: "Make me a blessing . . . . ."
Over the past months several individuals have brought to spiritual direction sessions their great discomfort with the level of rhetoric and discourse occurring in the national political arena. These are toughened persons and several are accustomed to the give and take of advocacy issues. But things have descended to a plane of discussion that, frankly, sickens them. They ask what has happened to civil discourse? They are shocked by the images of violence and abusive language that they see in the media. This is not for them only a political matter but one that cuts to the core of who they see themselves as spiritual beings in society.
When I listen deeply to what these good people say, I find that they are speaking out loud some of my own deep concerns and fears. This week I shared my concerns with my own spiritual director, who advised, wisely, to just stop listening to the "noise" and to "guard the heart". in the best monastic tradition. He was not counseling neutrality or lack of concern but simply not getting eaten up by the viciousness of the moment.
This morning I spent some time, as I do every day, with A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals (selected and edited by Jonathan Montaldo). An entry titled "A Moment of Clarity" helped me understand my feelings in the wider (cosmic?) scheme of things: "A flash of sanity: the momentary realization that there is no need to come to certain conclusions about persons, events, conflicts, trends, even trends toward evil and disaster, as if from day to day, and even from moment to moment, I had to know and declare (at least to myself) that this is so and so, this is good, this is bad. We are heading for a "new era" or we are heading for destruction. What do such judgments mean? Little or nothing. Things are as they are in an immense whole of which I am a part and which I cannot pretend to grasp. To say I grasp it is immediately to put myself in a false position, as if I were 'outside' it. Whereas to be 'in' it is to seek truth in my own life and action, moving where movement is possible and keeping still when movement is unnecessary, realizing that things will continue to define themselves and that the judgments and mercies of God will clarify themselves and will be more clear to me if I am silent and attentive, obedient to His will, rather than constantly formulating statements in this age which is smothered in language, in meaningless and inconclusive debate in which, in the last analysis, nobody listens to anything except what agrees with his own prejudices" (p. 86).
When this was written in March 1966 this country was in political turmoil about national and international matters. Merton's comments are sill very relevant and helpful, to me at least, in the political season of 2016.
So maybe you are wondering why I have included two pictures of the inside of my home here in Indianapolis on this blog. What does an open dresser drawer and an open kitchen drawer have to do with spirituality and growth in the Spirit?
Here is the story: This winter I was confined to the house much more than in past times due to my recovery from knee replacement surgery. I tired easily and often was in pain. But I wanted some projects to keep the time moving.
I realized that there were two things that I had been wanting to do for a long time: I wanted to line the kitchen drawers with a splash of color, something fun to look at. And I wanted to try to line with cloth the drawers in a hundred year old dresser in my bedroom. On bleak winter days I measured, cut, glued both the kitchen liner and a piece of cloth called "Grandpa's Pyjamas" that I found at a nearby cloth store on sale. When I finished, I realized that it was a fun project and it definitely gave me the splash of color in the kitchen as well as warmer drawers in the dresser. No more boring non-descript bare wood!
Working on these drawers caused me to reflect on spiritual development and the work of spiritual direction. All of this work is about the inner life. Spirituality is never about the surface of things . . . usually that surface is not very deep or profound. When individuals arrange to meet with a spiritual director or mentor, it is because they want to deepen their inner life. They are impatient with superficialities. Sometimes they have been hurt or abused by spiritual or religious expressions that are judgmental and unloving. These individuals are training their senses on everything that happens beneath the surface, in spaces of the soul that are not in public sight.
Here are some of the examples of under-the-surface things that come to the surface in direction:
The great privilege of a spiritual director is to share in this inner journey. But accompaniment on this journey requires that the spiritual director also drills deep into her or his own spirit.
Usually in spiritual direction both the director and the directee discover an awareness of how the Holy One is at work in the hidden places of one's being. Just as with the kitchen and dresser drawers, spiritual direction contributes to a more interesting, textured, colorful and meaningful inner profile.
More than 500 spiritual directors from around the world met in Louisville in mid April 2015 for the conference of Spiritual Directors International (SDI) centering on the theme "Emerging Wisdom". As the above picture of Tibetan Buddhist monks making a beautiful mandala in the exhibition space indicates, participants came from a wide spectrum of spiritual traditions, including Sufi, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and None. Through workshops and stimulating plenaries, a sense of emerging spiritual wisdom that cuts across the diversity of the global community became evident.
I was privileged to attend this year's meeting. Even though I sometimes meet with other local spiritual directors for fellowship and continuing education, nothing here in Indianapolis can compare with the international scope of the SDI gathering. In this blog post I want to highlight several of the high points of the conference.
I left Louisville after five days of contact and conversation with those who practice spiritual deepening grateful for the opportunity to touch a little of the life current that flows through them--through Merton, through Pir Zia Inayat Khan, through other spiritual directors I met, through devout Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and other Christians. I hope that my own spiritual direction practice will be strengthened because I was there sharing in Emerging Wisdom.
Sure, there are moments when we need to be alone--with our thoughts, in some forms of prayer and meditation. Some people always want to be alone, left to themselves. Often they are lonely. Others only want to be in the crowd or pack. They also can be very lonely. Mothers of little children yearn to be alone with that cup of coffee or at least with other adults. Moments of transition or momentous decision in our lives often require substantial introspective and reflective time.
If you really want to be alone with your thoughts and yearnings for spiritual depth, though, this cannot happen in the context of spiritual direction. Spiritual direction occurs when a spiritual director, a seeker (who we often call a directee) and the Holy Spirit sit in confidentiality, respect and profound expectation to discern how God is moving and present in a person's life . . . sometimes just under the surface of the day-to-day. Some persons enjoy gathering with one or two spiritual directors in small groups of five or six persons.
The director might comment or ask a pertinent question. Or the Spirit might cause a sudden realization or breakthrough to surface. Or there might be moments of quiet waiting and integration of some thought or insight. In any case, good spiritual direction is a joint or often collective endeavor. It is never like Frank Sinatra's famous song "I Did It My Way" . . .
Earlier this summer I saw this bench that had been placed on East 10th Street near Highland not far from my house here in Indianapolis and it caused me to think about what spiritual direction, as I have experienced it and have practiced it, is not. In spiritual direction we sit together.
Beyond spiritual direction, this theme of aloneness is powerfully present in popular music. Go to this link for the Alone music video:
I have a cane now and it is pictured above.
The story of the cane begin last year with visits to a sports physician who informed me that I had osteoarthritis in the right knee.
For a person who bikes, uses public transportation, walks and enjoys manual labor and "get down dirty gardening" this was not good news.
Throughout 2013 the knee got worse until, finally, I was sent to Indiana University Hospital physical therapy. In the meantime, I started using a cane to keep balance while walking. But wielding the cane was often awkward (once, I almost hit a woman while trying to move the cane from hand to hand) and it also ID'd me as an "old guy" and not strong while walking in urban areas where mugging is always a possibility. And, it just embarrassed me. So, this is where all these years of exercise, good eating, and taking care of myself have gotten me?
The knee hurts and is often stiff. I think twice about some activities. Yes, I whine. Yet, so many people have it worse in some circumstance of health or life. Will I fight this knee thing? Will I look for a quick fix or expensive, intrusive surgery?
More important: I ask myself if I should lean into this health condition (actually not so unusual for a guy my age) or if I should fight it. Truth be told, I do a little of both.
The fighting part has to do with not suspending any activity, even if it sometimes does hurt. Not keeping active seems to me like a slippery slope that ends with an old man hanging out in his recliner. Fighting also means learning about the knee and doing as much as I can medically to work on it. This has to mean more than popping Aleves or Advils. Physical therapy has proven surprisingly good at strengthening the leg and knee. The young therapist has given me much excellent professional attention and has encouraged me even to return to the gym . . . something I thought was in my past.
The leaning in part is where, in daily prayer or meditation sessions, I do a gentle body scan, starting with my feet and moving upwards, body part by body part. When I get to the knee I thank it for all it has done for seventy years. I let my hand hover over the knee cap and sometimes (okay, I know this sounds a little nutty) I do feel a warm energy surround it. And I ask for the pain to just teach me whatever it is meant to teach me. The leaning into the pain actually helps me deal with the pain . . . my kind of pain management.
While fighting and leaning into the arthritis, things do seem sometimes to have shifted subtly into slow motion. Yes, I do think that the slowness of walking now is the slow, slow . . . slower of walking and hurting at the same time.
My spiritual director pointed me to the Welcoming Prayer by Mary Mrozowski (1925-1993) that has given me much strength in recent days . . . especially in the work of leaning in.
Welcome, welcome, welcome.
I welcome everything that comes to me in this moment
because I know it is for my healing.
I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions,
persons, situations and conditions.
I let go of my desire for security.
I let go of my desire for approval.
I let go of my desire for control.
I let go of my desire to change any
situation, condition, person, or myself.
I open to the love and presence of God
the healing action and grace within.
In spiritual direction, I always begin with a time of silence and centering. Often those engaging with me in spiritual direction want another period of silence at the conclusion of our hour together. As we unravel stories and complex, often perplexing personal narratives, there are moments when we go silent. Sometimes, after a rich and profound silence, a directee will say: "I really needed that." And I usually concur that I needed that silence also.
I admit it: This is my (monastic?) bias. In silence, we begin moving towards quieting all of the inner voices that compete for our attention and that distract us from essentials.
Never hope to find a silent zone in an American church (unless, of course, you are a Quaker). My home parish is chatty, chatty, chatty. People mean well. They are happy to see each other. But all of the chatter leaves God's voice in the wings. For awhile, I went to the church a little early so that, in silence, I could focus and prepare myself for the service. But, then, the choir decided to start rehearsing and, so, au revoir silence!
In monastic practice, after late evening prayers (compline) we observe the Great Silence. This is a deep time. I feel as though it prepares us not only to hear God's voice but readies us for the ultimate silence we will all face sooner or later: death. Even if we are all praising the Lord in heaven, I imagine that the mode of that praise will not be words and chatter.
So, I have never really considered a down side to silence . . . that is, until I read Days in the History of Silence by celebrated Norwegian author Merethe Lindstrom. This wonderful and acclaimed (in Norway but not quite yet in the USA) novel spins the story of an aging couple--they seem to be in their seventies, kids grown, in retirement, cultured. Suddenly and without any apparent reason, Simon, goes silent. He smiles. He makes eye contact. But he has just stopped talking. Period.
His wife tries to sort out what is going on while keeping her part of the better or worse deal that her marriage now represents. For her it is worse. It turns out that Simon is a holocaust survivor who has never discussed this with his daughters. It is revealed that the long suffering wife, gave away her baby boy because she had no feeling for him. But she has never told anyone except Simon. There is a Latvian cleaning woman who the couple suddenly releases--and this causes tensions with their daughters who are fond of the cleaner. The couple refuse to share with the adult daughters the reason for the dismissal. As the novel progresses, it seems that one secret by one family member is lodged inside another secret of another family member. Even the cleaning woman guards a silence, until one day she speaks words that electrify and hurt.
Maybe this is a silence of shame or of confusion about things that happened long ago. Many families experience this in some way. But you wonder if Simon's silence is not intentional and meant to hurt or punish. All persons who have been on the receiving end of "the silent treatment" by someone near to them, know how maddening this can be.
I am not going to leak the ending of this novel. It wouldn't be fair to readers or to the author. But I think that this is a wonderful, elegant, sparsely constructed novel which, with an intense economy of words, sucks you into the silence or the many nested silences. Good silence, bad silence? You decide at the end.
For myself, my bias regarding silence is just a little shaken now. Before I open that can of silence pictured above in a spiritual direction session, I am going to try to be sensitive to the possibility that the person sitting across from me might have been hurt or damaged by a bad silence.