Gratitude as Source of Happiness

Lately, I have been thinking of gratitude and how important it is. Two memories come to mind immediately. One is a comment a late friend made reflecting with a sense of humour on his somewhat rebellious childhood. He said: “I’m grateful that my parents let me live.”

The other recollection was a Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy is complaining to her younger brother Linus that her life is a drag, that she doesn’t get the breaks other people do, that nothing goes right for her. Linus suggests that, at times like this, she should count her blessings. That sets Lucy off on another rant and she finally asks him to name one blessing she has. To which he replies: “Well, for one thing, you have a little brother who loves you.” She then goes wailing into his arms, as he comments shyly aside: “Every now and then I say the right thing.”

In both these instances, the gentle humour brings home the source of gratitude. It is both the fundamental reality of being alive and the caring that makes life worthwhile. I think too that humour that is gentle and not derisive is an expression of hope. To see the humour in something can for example immediately dissipate a mounting anger. I recall once, at a family dinner that was becoming tense, my younger brother, Mike, spoke out with the words: “May I play through?” The tension was immediately dissolved by laughter.

The ancient practice of grace before meals is an expression of gratitude for the food that keeps us alive. It is also gratefulness for the sharing of food with those who share our lives. This again is the caring that gives meaning to our lives. The very word “grace” means gratitude, thankfulness.

Twentieth century author, G. K. Chesterton, writes with thoughtful humour about gratitude “The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful when Santa Claus put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?”

What emerges from his words is that gratitude implies a recognition of gift, and that the basic gift is life itself. Inseparably, it is recognition of the meaningfulness of that gift, which in turn is bound up with our connection with one an other. Chesterton further stresses that gratitude is the source of happiness. If we do not experience our life, our very self, as a gift, but as an accident or even a burden, we tend toward resentment, which readily flows into hostility and even destructive behaviour. Gratitude even further implies that the gift of life is a valuable gift; that we are each a being of sacred worth.

If we reflect on the billions of years of the unfolding of the universe, and the stunning reality, as scientist Brian Swimme brings out, that the stars are our ancestors, we may experience a sense of wonder and awe that we are part of an immense process, and one in which everything is connected.

Yet this awareness and conviction can be readily challenged and is quite precarious. The experience of limitations, faults, and even betrayals, in ourselves and others, can obscure our sense of underlying worth. The problems of society and the reality of climate change can also be very threatening. Having gentle time being with ourselves and being with others–solitude and friendship–are essential to uncovering our intrinsic sacred worth. Concern for ourselves and those nearest to us can also push us toward active concern for our world and our planet.

Gratefulness does not demand an unreal perfection or completeness. This awareness is expressed in the novel by Chaim Potok. A son tells his father that he is troubled by the realization of death. The father replies that something does not have to be forever to be good; it can be precious precisely because it is not forever.

Fragments of the thought of Plato and T. S. Eliot come to mind. Plato spoke of understanding as remembering. I think it can mean that when we come to awareness of basic truths about life–including its gift character–it is like uncovering something we already somehow knew implicitly. And remembering is perhaps less about past facts than coming home to who we truly are, especially our sacred worth. I have long appreciated as well the words of poet, T. S. Eliot. ““We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.

Grateful recognition of the simple things in life–a hot coffee or tea, a warm sun, the smile of a friend, a courtesy from a stranger, a kind word given or received, a loving or humourous memory, a piece of beautiful music, the song of a bird or the chirping of a cricket–all these can bring a quiet joy to our heart, an implicit gratitude for our life and for our home in this universe. It we are open, an underlying gratitude can ease our burdens, alleviate our self judgment, and our judgment of others, and flow into a greater openness of heart, a generosity of spirit, and a more active concern for others and our world.

May you come to experience more fully the sacredness of each of us and the preciousness of the gift of life. And may you respond more fully to the challenge is to care gently for its unfolding within and around you.

Norman King, July 11, 2024

Starting from Our Sacred Self

“There is a place in us where we have never been wounded.” These words of Meister Eckhart really resonate with me. This is the heart place, the home place, the place of our inmost core, our sacred self. It can also be described as the place of wholeness, which Helen Keller describes as the place of happiness. Tal Ben-Shahar suggests that this wholeness/happiness has five components, indicated by the acronym SPIRE: spiritual, physical, intellectual, relational, and emotional.

Other expressions of solitude may nudge us gently toward that place within where we have never been wounded. These can include reading thoughtfully something that resonates with us, such as, perhaps, the writings of Richard Rohr or Thich Nhat Hanh. Another avenue is to focus on a word or phrase that expresses the openness or deep longing of our spirit. Variations of this form are called prayer of the heart or centering prayer. Other pathways include becoming attuned to our sensations or feelings, without judgment; focusing on a candle or other object; sitting beside a stream or waterfall and simply listening to the sound.

There are also instances where our breathing becomes conscious. One interesting experience I recall is being at a higher altitude, at Mt. Edith Cavell in the Canadian Rockies and Pike’s Peak in Colorado. In these places, the air is thinner and the breath is initially a little more laboured. I became vividly aware that I was breathing and that it was good to breathe. Accompanying this sensation may be the sense that while we are breathing, we are alive, that it is good to be alive, and that we are grateful for the gift of life. When this reality is experienced deeply, it includes, at least implicitly, an undertone of gratitude–rather than resentment–for our life; a sense of the worth of our life, and that life itself is a wonderful gift.

Listening to beautiful music can also be a pathway to our inner core. I have really appreciated Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber and Nella Fanstasia sung by Sarah Brightman. Both are available on Youtube. The beautiful, repetitive refrains of the music of Taizé may lead us gently into the silence of our own heart. I have often repeated the words of Eva Rockett in an issue of Homemakers magazine, many years ago. She affirms that the beauty of music may reach behind all our defences and touch the core of the condensed self.

Another approach I recently came across is to become aware of our thought patterns. These can influence how we feel and act. The fundamental conviction I have mentioned repeatedly is the sacred worth or value of our very self. At the same time, I have mentioned that we may often speak to ourselves in very harsh, judgmental, and negative terms. These are ways we would never talk to a close friend. When we notice this negative self talk, we might pause, and think: What if instead we stopped and asked ourselves how we would think and how we would speak to ourselves, if we started from the conviction of our intrinsic worth. Instead of moving from the thought that “I am no good because…,” we start from the presumption that “I am of sacred worth, therefore …”

This may be a question of halting a years-old, and possibly unconscious pattern, and introducing a new approach. We may not feel that worth, but we begin to act from that centre. When we truly listen to another, we acknowledge where they are at the time, and how they are presently feeling. We need not agree with them or want them to remain in that space. But in recognizing their present reality, we are affirming their worth as the deeper reality, This is the basis for creative growth. Instead of trying to move them directly to a different place, we try to listen them into their own truth. We try simply to foster the process of their attuning to the place within themselves where they have never been wounded. Perhaps we may begin more and more to listen ourselves into our sacred worth, to become more at home there, and to live more and more from our true home, our heart space.

Perhaps we may conclude with our words from the last reflection. Our journey into the silence and solitude of our heart may pass through the whole spectrum of feelings. Yet beneath these may be uncovered and emerge to awareness our inner core, in its beauty and sacredness. We may then–though not without reversals and new beginnings–gradually live more and more from that centre, and discern and respond to its presence in all we encounter.

May you more and more become attuned to your sacred core, find there your home, and live from there.
And may you then become more fully at home to, and a home for others whose life path crosses your own.
Norman King May 12, 2023


I recently listened to a podcast interview with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, conducted by Mel Robbins. His area of study is positive psychology and happiness. He offers Helen Keller’s view that happiness is wholeness. He holds that happiness is something that ensues a meaningful life. To pursue happiness directly results in failure. He uses an acronym to name the essential ingredients of a happy life: SPIRE. These letters stand for: Spiritual, Physical, Intellectual, Relational, and Emotional. I thought it might be useful to explore these topics in a few reflections.

The term “whole” itself is related to the words health, heal, hale, holy, and even hello. The Latin word for whole, integer, finds its English counterpart in the word integrity. The opposite is “broken,” which means damaged, divided into parts, or fractured (also from the Latin). This root suggests that happiness involves an integration which holds together in harmony all the various dimensions of our human nature. At the same time, in an article co-authored many years ago, we raised the question of whether one can be a whole person in a broken body. The conclusion was that it was possible, often with the help of intelligently caring and trustworthy others. In other words, wholeness, integrity, authenticity is possible, and is only possible if it is compatible with the inseparable limitations, sorrows, pains, losses, and mistakes found within every human life.

These thoughts lead naturally into the first component of happiness, the spiritual. This element may include religion, but not necessarily. Theologian Diarmid O’Murchu, in Reclaiming Spirituality, suggests that preceding, informing, and going beyond specific religious beliefs, is the human longing for deeper meaning. Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl has also claimed that the longing for meaning is the deepest drive of the human being, a view expressed as well by theologian, Karl Rahner.

This longing for meaning may be understood to comprise three dimensions, a sense of worth, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose. The journey toward meaning would seem as a result to involve as well three elements: the practice of solitude and meditation; the experience of friendship and compassion; and the sense that we are part of, and called from within, to give ourselves to something beyond and greater than ourselves.

For today, let’s look at the first element: solitude and meditation. Meister Eckhart, the 13th century mystic has written: “There is a place in the soul that neither time nor space nor any created thing can touch. … There is a place in the soul where you’ve never been wounded.” The purpose of solitude and meditation is to get to, to return to that space, that Thomas Merton calls “the secret beauty” of our heart. This has been the guiding principle of all my thinking and feeling: that there is a sacred worth and value, to each and every person, and to all that is. It is our home space, our underlying identity. It is never proven, but only discovered, or rather uncovered.

One of the pathways to uncover this place is through breathing meditation. This practice is common to both Eastern and Western traditions. It involves essentially three steps: first simply sit quietly and pay attention to our breathing, its inhale, pause, and exhale, and how it feels. Before long our mind will wander into all kinds of thoughts–the second step. Finally as we notice this distraction, we simply return our attention to the breath. This process will repeat itself continually. Those who write about this practice, such as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nath Hanh, speak of this practice as allowing us to become more fully present in all our activities. His book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, was written to help social workers be more mindful and so more helpful to those they assisted in their work.

James Finlay has a wonderful comment on this practice: “As we sit, though nothing happens, there is a subtle parting of a curtain.” a clarity and awareness may surface. Wayne Muller echoes a similar thought. He tells of a week long silent retreat, where a deep feeling of sadness emerged. Yet he stayed with the silence, and writes about it.
I could feel a place inside, below all my names, my stories, my injuries, my sadness–a place that lived in my breath. …It had a voice, a way of speaking to me about what was true, what was right. And along with this voice came a presence, an indescribable sense of well-being that reminded me that whatever pain or sorrow I would be given, there was something inside strong enough to bear the weight of it. It would rise to meet whatever I was given. It would teach me what to do.

In the silence of solitude, then, we may become attuned to our own inner voice, the voice that, so to speak, is behind and in our breath. It is the expression of our inmost self, our sacred self, our authentic self, our heart or core self. It is the place where we have never been wounded.

Yet there are places above that inmost self where we have been wounded. There are voices other than the voice of our sacredness. And as we sit in silence, we may first hear these other voices: the voices of criticism, of judgment, of rejection and the like. And there is also the whole spectrum of feelings that each of us experience in some way, including the negative or troubling feelings, such as anger, frustration, bitterness, and the like.

As we have frequently said, the challenge is to recognize these feelings, without either identifying with them or unleashing them indiscriminately. Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, suggests that we regard these as visitors, but not give them the run of the house. They do belong to us, but they are not who we are most deeply. Anglican author, Morton Kelsey, clarifies the process of recognition and response to these feelings..
Out of silence disturbing emotions often come to the surface which are difficult to control. They can range from vague apprehension to terror and panic, or they may vary from bitterness and indignation to aggressive hatred and rage.. … In the silence one can allow the feelings to arise, disconnected from their ordinary targets in the outer world, and learn to deal with the depth of the psyche directly. … Our feelings and personal responses to the world are taken down, examined, and brought into relationship with the rest of our being and the Centre of Meaning.

In this process, we may be able gradually to uncover the outer, sometimes disturbing layers. Behind these, we may become more and more attuned to and in touch with our core self, our authentic self, our true home. We may then, more and more, learn to live from and return to that soul self. Of course the ambiguities and struggles of life always remain and assert themselves. But they may gradually become visitors and not permanent residents.

The journey into silence may pass through the whole spectrum of feelings. Yet beneath these may be uncovered and emerge to awareness our inner core, in its beauty and sacredness. We may then–though not without reversals and new beginnings–gradually live more and more from that centre, and discern and respond to its presence in all we encounter.

In the silence of your heart, may you more and more uncover and live from your inmost secret self, and experience the happiness of being truly at home to your self and others.

A Few Thoughts on Memory

I think that memory is not just a recalling of some past event. It is more fundamentally remembering who we are. In this sense, memory is a tuning in to who we are in our heart, our core. It is a coming home to our own sacred self. Ever moreso, it is a making presence of all those whom we have allowed to enter our heart or who have given us entry to their own heart.

As an example, when we hear a piece of music connected with a particular time, place or person, we not only think of that situation, but we go there. We feel again what we felt then. The earlier experience remains present within us, and the music can bring it back to the surface of our awareness and feeling.

Something similar happens when someone close to us dies or is separated from us. This is someone who has entered our heart, who has become part of who we are. At first, any memories of that person readily make us feel the pain of their loss. As we allow our grief to unfold within us, a subtle change takes place. Some of these memories may now bring joy and gratitude, as exquisite and even humourous experiences arise to the surface of our thought and feeling. The presence and love of that person remains in our heart, and gradually transcends our sorrow at their loss. Who we are, then, includes all those who have entered into our heart, our core, and who have shaped and remain a part of who we are.

I recall the devastating and aching sorrow that came with the death of my younger brother at the age of 26. Yet the unshakable bond that developed between us is one of the most grateful experiences of my life. Since that event of so many years ago, I came to realize that my social involvements have, in large part, been concerned with children. They seem to be an outreach to all the younger brothers of this world who are in some form of pain.

In a favourite essay, “The Logic of Elfland,” G.K. Chesterton tells us that one role of the arts is to remind us of who we are. He first speaks of folk tales as rooted in the experience of wonder, and writes;” These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. … We have all read … the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man … cannot remember who he is. Well, everyone is that person in the story. …We have all forgotten what we really are. … All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awe-filled instant we remember that we forget. …”

In this light, the challenge appears to be to remember who we truly are beneath the accretions of life that have led to forgetfulness, to forgetting our truest and deepest self, and perhaps also those who have remained within our heart..

The story of the Prodigal Son adds another dimension. The younger son requests then and squanders his inherit. He ends up half starved among a group of pigs, an image of utter desolation. The path to his healing begins with memory, a realization that his earlier situation was better. But he does not remember far enough. It is only when the father treats him as a beloved son that he himself recognizes his own deepest reality as a beloved son. When he does so, he comes alive to who he truly is.

I think this story contains two basic insights. First, other individuals and our society may lead us to forget who we are, our true self. Yet another caring person can see and call us to remember our true self. Secondly, the basic truth of who we are is that we are a beloved son or daughter, that is, a being of intrinsic worth, In brief the story is saying that no matter how far we stray, no matter how lost we become, or no matter how dead we are inside, we remain that beloved person, a being of sacred worth.

A similar thought is echoed by Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth century mystic.“There is a place in the soul that neither time nor space nor any created thing can touch. … There is a place in the soul where you’ve never been wounded.” We may have wandered far from this place. Yet it which always remains and is accessible. Our challenge is to recover or uncover this place as our true home.

In sum, in this approach, memory concerns most fundamentally who we are, and who we are in relationship to others whose lives are most fully intertwined with our own. It may gradually extend to the wider communities and world. It concerns remembering our own and others worth, and gradually living a life based on that sacredness in self, in others, and eventually in all that is. It is, in effect, a life based on love received and given, and one that gradually radiates outwards, in wider and wider circles, to embrace all that is. Such a life is truly memorable and meaningful.

May you come more and more to be in touch with your own inmost core, to recognize its sacred worth and beauty, and to honour that sacredness in yourself and others. May you more and more live according to that worth, in yourself, in others who have entered your heart and remain there, and ever-widening circles to embrace every human being and all that is. And may you thereby fashion a memorable life whose presence radiates through the universe.

Transitions in Life

Today’s theme is on transitions in life, and the summer is itself a time of transition. It is an invitation to a slower pace, to take time to rest, and to allow for renewal from within. As a result, I will pause for a few summer weeks from this weekly reflection, with the hope of a renewed awareness when they resume. In this light, I wish each of you a wonderful. wondrous, and wonder-filled summer. With immense gratitude for each of you.

Transitions in Life

I recently listened to a podcast that spoke of liminality. The word comes from a Latin term and means threshold. It is like a door frame where we pass from the outside world into the inside world of our own or someone else’s house. To stand on the threshold of something is to be in a space between two worlds. It has often been described as a state of betwixt and between. It is an in-between state, situation, or experience, in which we are no longer inhabiting our past familiar world and have yet to discover and enter a new world.
Adolescence is one such time, when we are no longer a child, but not yet an adult. Often, we react against any authority in one moment and are looking for an authority to tell us what to do in the next.
I recall an almost comic example in my first teaching experience in Buffalo NY. I asked students to write down an answer to two questions. First, what kind of a course did they not want, and second, what kind of a course did they want. On the first question, they replied overall that they did not want anything shoved down their throats. On the second question, they requested a practical course. I suggested that their first response echoed a familiar adolescent theme: “No one can tell me what to do.” I then said that if that is the case, then I alone am responsible for what I do and its consequences. That realization would lead them to say. “Help! What am I supposed to do?” In other words, the betwixt and between here is an example of the transition between childhood and adulthood. It is the passage between being looked after and having to look after our own lives
Another example is the feast of Hallowe’en, when children dress up often in scary or humourous costumes, and roam the neighbourhood asking for treats. When my son was two and a half years old, Lorraine, his mother, took him, in some seemingly fierce get-up, to the doors of a few neighbours. He pretended to scare them and they pretended to be scared. Then he assured them that it was only Billy. What seemed to be happening was that he was in some way aware of a certain element of fierceness within himself, and yet that was not the real him.
I recall another experience when Lorraine and I were visiting at her uncle’s farm in Radway, Alberta, a little north of Edmonton. In an obscure part of the property, I came across a small cabin, certainly abandoned, but with a few objects scattered inside. One that caught my attention was a woman’s shoe with high laces, a kind not worn for generations. It made me think of how that shoe belonged to someone who lived in a different time and place and culture, of which there is now only this fragmentary evidence.
There are so many transitions–in time and place and culture, as well as in individual lives. Many of these have been marked by rituals, such as marriages and funerals, or even by the changing of the seasons. Others seem more internal, although certainly expressed in outward behaviour.
I recall one instance when I was living in Quebec City, in my early twenties. I had a gradually dawning rather than sudden experience. I felt that everything I had ever learned and been told was not so much either true or untrue but unreal. It was like a jacket that no longer fit. I did not feel that there would necessarily result in a change of ideas or values. But there was a vivid sense that these now had to emerge from within rather than be simply accepted from without. They needed now to come from who I was rather than what I was told. There may be other times in life when such a development may occur. It may be that the convictions that have helped us for years no longer seem to apply.
Spiritual writer, Richard Rohr, provides a helpful illustration. He speaks of the two halves of life. These are not necessarily two chronological ages, but rather two levels of awareness. The first half of life is spent building our sense of identity, importance, and security. This he calls the false self, the image we present to the world and even ourselves.  But inevitably we discover, often through failure or a significant loss, that this image is not all of us. In the second half of life, we discover that it is no longer sufficient to find meaning in being successful or wealthy. We need a deeper source of meaning and purpose. Now aliveness comes from the inside out. The second half of life is about learning to recognize, honor, and love this inner voice.
A basic transition in life is precisely to move from outer acceptability to inner authenticity. As Rohr suggests, it is often occasioned by a sorrow or loss, that reveals its inadequacy, or its being part of an earlier, no longer applicable, stage of life. I recall another image which spoke of shedding shells. Apparently, there is a species of crab that periodically becomes too large for its present shell, and remains vulnerable for a time until its new shell grows. Just as we need to shed our clothing as we grow, so too as we grow inwardly, we need to shed outer ideas, beliefs and attitudes, that are no longer life-giving.
In part, this process involves, I believe,  recognizing the sacredness of being alive, of the very gift of life, the gift of who we are, rather than what we do or what we have. The pathway to this recognition appears to be solitude, friendship, and social involvement, all underlined by and flowing from presence. It is rooted in being and living from our inmost self.
While this growth does evolve from within us, at the same time it involves a deeper awareness of our connection with all that is and with the universe itself. I like the words of Einstein: “The soul given to each of us is moved by the same living spirit that moves the Universe.” I once summarized the thought of Thomas Merton in these words: I am a unique word uttered with meaning and love from the heart of the universe.
May your life more and more unfold in terms of who you truly are, with gratitude for the gift of yourself and your life, and generosity for all.
Norman King, June 26, 2023


Naming Experience Through Story

Last week, I referred to the story of Pandora as an expression of how life contains both joy and sorrow, both bitter and sweet. Yet it yet can be lived with an underlying sense of gratitude and hope. Life is a precious gift, endowed with a sacred worth, even though it may sometimes hurt immensely.
I also suggested that every experience can be interpreted as containing a gift and call to bring something to life within us and around us, even out of the many deaths in the midst of life. This is one of the stories that we can tell ourselves to interpret our experience.
Each of us contains within ourselves the whole range of human experiences, from fear to love, anger to excitement, sadness to joy. One actor said that the way to portray a character was to get in touch within yourself the feelings that the character expressed, since all these feelings are present within each of us. The children’s story that Jane and I wrote, The Rainbow Tear, tries to express in a simple way the reality that each of us has all the human feelings,  that it is important to recognize this truth, and that these feelings are best held together in love.
The story that we tell ourselves about who we are and what our life is about will affect how we live out our life. At the deepest level, we want our life to follow a good script and tell a good story. To do so, it needs to have an image of ourselves as a being of sacred worth. It also needs a script that takes into account all the ambiguities, the both/and of life.
A recent podcast contained a jarring comment: When children are abandoned by their parents, they do not cease to love their parents, they cease to love themselves. That felt abandonment may not always be a result of abuse or neglect. It may come from an inevitable parental illness or death or a tragic life situation. Physician Gabor Maté felt abandoned as an infant, even though his mother entrusted him to a stranger in order to save his life, because of the World War II holocaust. Through a compassionate self-awareness, often aided by a caring presence in one’s life, a person may uncover their own sacred worth, and a positive script that follows that awareness.
What is really crucial is to have a story which enables us and helps us to see ourselves and life truthfully and in depth. We need a story which helps us to live our life fully and meaningfully and responsibly. We need a story which helps us to share our lives and take an active part in our society. We need a story that helps us to understand and deal with the pain and tragedy that are a part of every life.
We need images and stories that are not superficial or naive, warped or destructive,  but that take into account all that goes into our makeup. These acknowledge all our spiritual richness and complexity and depth, as well as our inner wounds and mistakes, while holding gratefully to our underlying worth. In short, we need a story, a vision of life that enables and challenges us to celebrate our joys and survive our sorrows, to share our lives, and build our world.
As our life unfolds, we are at first shaped by the stories that we have heard, from family, school, culture, mass media, and the like. Some of these, such as those which hold up an external model of success, can be inadequate. This is especially so if they negate our inner value, or  if they do not take into account the whole range of human experience, or do not help us deal with the sorrows of life.
In this sense, the truth of a story is not so much concerned just with the facts of the story. Rather, it concerns more deeply the vision of life the story contains: the picture of what a human being is and what life really means. Soap operas look externally realistic, yet are often emotionally unreal. Folk tales seem unrealistic, yet they contain profound truths about life. In the story of Rapunzel, for example, we are told that two of Rapunzel’s tears fell on the eyes of the blinded young prince and restored his sight. The meaning seems to be that when our sorrows are borne in a life-giving way, they can be a source of vison and healing for others.
In this regard, scholar John Dominic Crossan expresses the thought bluntly. “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
An invitation and challenge here is to expose ourselves to some of the enduring stories of humankind, and let these shape our imagination. One suggestion is that we approach any story with the words, “once upon a time.” This approach may offer a helpful imaginative framework within which to absorb the story.
I would like to conclude this week’s reflection with a couple of examples of stories, with a brief interpretation.
The story of Echo in Greek mythology tells of a young woman whose punishment is that she can only repeat what she hears. On one level it is an imaginative reflection on the experience of an echo in which a sound comes back to us until it gradually fades away. At a deeper level, the story suggests that we must find our own voice from within, beyond merely echoing what we hear from without. To do so is to make our own contribution to life. Not to do so is to fade away and to die within. In the words of Thomas Merton, contemplative writer, if we do not speak from our true self discovered in solitude, our speech will merely secrete clichés.
A story, familiar to many, The Prodigal Son, need not be merely factual information about a young man who loses his way. It suggests rather that, even if we sever basic bonds, throw away our gifts, lose our way, and destroy much of the life that is within us, it is still not too late. We may begin at least to glimpse something deeper within us. And another caring person may recall us to our deepest self, beneath all wounds. In the face of the sometimes daunting experience of mistakes in life, the story calls us to remember that our sacred worth is deeper than and not destroyed by any brokenness or wrongness.
In effect, to understand ourselves, one another, and life’s meaning, we need the help of images and stories that affirm a deeper underlying worth which includes an awareness of our shadow self. I recall after reading a number of novels of Margaret Laurence that she implies all her characters are flawed, yet she sees them as likeable beneath these flaws.
May you all find an image of yourself, your core self and your whole self, and a script to live by that allows for the shadows that fall across your life, yet affirms your underlying sacredness.

Norman King, June 19, 2023

Gratitude and Longing

Last week, I spoke of our inner core, our heart, not only as our sacred centre, but also as a place of longing, a longing for beauty and love, for wisdom and compassion. We tune into this longing especially in times of silence, but also in listening to music as well as stories and other forms of art.

Many years ago, Jane Ripley and I published a book of reflective verse, prefaced with brief introductory reflections. One of these was on longing.
“Longing is the voice of love in its aching for completeness and wholeness.. Longing is the voice of our heart in its recognition that we are ever on a journey, ever pilgrims, whose words, actions, and lives, never fully embody who we long to be. Longing is the voice of our heart in its recognition that, not without a tinge of anxiety, that we wish to, yet never quite share who we are with another.

Yet, longing is not a restless dissatisfaction nor a negative judgement passed on self and others. Rather, longing is a gentle openness to embrace and share our lives as they have been and are. Longing is a gentle openness to grow beyond where we are now, to move with another on our journey, as we trust the unfolding process of life, within us, between us, and beyond us.”

Gratitude for self, one another, and for life itself, is a way to relieve some of the troubling restlessness in our longing. I recently started reading a book of the Essential Spiritual Writings of Ron Rolheiser. He writes “Gratitude is the ultimate virtue, undergirding everything else, even love. … We are mature to the degree that we are grateful.”

If we combine gratitude with longing, perhaps we may encounter an underlying sense of our own sacred worth as foundational. To have a sense that we are of value, and to come to recognize that value at a gut level, evokes a sense of gratitude. If our life and who we are is a worthwhile gift, then we may experience ourselves and our lives with gratefulness. To do so leads us also to experience the life of others and their very selves as having a sacred worth.

Yet there is at the same time a real challenge. The experience of limitations, faults, and even betrayals, in ourselves and others, can obscure that underlying worth. It can evoke resentment. It can push us to feel our lives more as a burden than a gift. It may lead us to try to pretend to be or become other than who we are. We may take on a script that is other than our own. There is also the social script with its pressure to see our worth in what we do or what we have rather than who we are. If our worth depends on doing and having, it is at best precarious and uncertain.

Having gentle time being with ourselves and being with others is essential to uncovering our underlying sacred worth. The words “being with” are identical to the word “presence” in its Latin source. It is a question of being at home to ourselves, rather than an absentee landlord in our own lives.

Gratefulness does not demand an unreal perfection or completeness. This awareness is expressed in the novel by Chaim Potok. A son tells his father that he is troubled by the realization of death. The father replies that something does not have to be forever to be good; it can be precious precisely because it is not forever.

Gratefulness may ease the restlessness of our longing, so our longing may then be felt as the unfolding of our own sacred worth and that of others, and the attempt to live out that worth. It involves the gradual realization that the love which we long to receive and give is already present in some way.

Fragments of the thought of Plato and T. S. Eliot come to mind. Plato spoke of knowledge as remembering. I think that this can mean that when we come to awareness of basic truths about life, it is like an uncovering of something we already somehow knew implicitly. And remembering is perhaps less about past facts than coming home to who we truly are. I have long appreciated as well the words of poet, T. S. Eliot. ““We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”

May you come to experience that what you long for may already be present within you, and that a challenge is to care gently for its unfolding within and around you.

Norman King, June 5, 2023

Longing from the Heart

Last week I spoke of our need for beauty, in nature, in works of art, in persons, and how it is sometimes only recognized when we actually experience that beauty. Beauty also reaches to our heart or core, behind all our many layers and defences. At the same time, it draws us out of ourselves, not to possess, but to appreciate.

When we have experienced the beauty of another person, we can never violate or manipulate or abuse that person. To do so we must block out any awareness of that beauty, that sacred worth. We can do so by stereotyping, by propaganda, by racism, sexism, or any other dehumanizing category

What is most striking here, though, is that what is beautiful at once reaches to our core and at the same time draws us out of that core. It at once reaches and responds to our inner core, and unveils that core to us. A closer look suggests that our inner core, our heart, is not only a place of foundational sacred worth. It is at the same time not static but is the place from which we reach out. It is a place of longing, of yearning, of unfolding. It is the home from which we endlessly leave and to which we endlessly return. It is a centre of energy. This is the energy that at once flows out from our core and gathers everything into our core.

In Greek mythology, one understanding of Eros is as the force that fuels the unfolding of the cosmos into form out of formlessness, light out of darkness, fullness out of emptiness. Above all else, Eros seems to be the energy of love.

Contemporary spiritual writer, Ron Rolheiser, speaks of eros as the sacred fire within us. What we do with that fire that burns within us, how we channel that fire is our spirituality. It shapes the direction in which our life unfolds. It can be channeled ideally in a creative life-giving way, or, unfortunately, can take a destructive direction. Both Teilhard de Chardin and Albert Einstein maintain that the underlying energy in the universe is love, and that this is the energy that gives meaning to everything else.

The experience of beauty gives us a clue to the meaning of authentic love, the creative way in which our inner energy may unfold. The experience of beauty, whether in the arts or in the glimpse of the soul of a person, draws us out of ourselves, not to possess or devour, but to appreciate, even to reverence. Once in a while we may sense something of the inner spirit of another, behind any exterior masks or walls. Then we may have a sense of their beauty and a conviction that we must never violate but only honour that person.

In a similar way, love, so masterfully explored by Erich Fromm, involves the giving and receiving of self. It is the sharing of life in the sense of what is alive within us. It is communication from the heart or core. Fromm adds that only in love do we actually know another person. He also notes that it is only in the love of those who do not serve a purpose that love begin to unfold. The Dalai Lama speaks of compassion in a similar way.

Writer Ann Lamott says similar things, yet comes at the same theme from a slightly different angle. She says: “What you’re looking for is already inside you. You’ve heard this before, but the holy thing inside you really is that which causes you to seek it. You can’t buy it, lease it, rent it, date it or apply for it. The best job in the world can’t give it to you. Neither can success, or fame, or financial security — besides which, there ain’t no such thing.”

She then suggests a few ways to “discover the truth of your spiritual identity.” “You feel it best when you’re not doing much–when you’re in nature, when you’re very quiet, or, paradoxically, listening to music. … We can see spirit made visible in people being kind to each other, especially when it’s a really busy person, taking care of a needy annoying person.”

“You are spirit, you are love,” she writes. “You’re here to love, and be loved, freely.”Finally, “all that will matter is memories of beauty, that people loved you, and you loved them, and that you tried to help the poor and innocent.”

In sum. At the sacred core of our being is a longing. Underneath all else, it is fundamentally a longing for beauty and love, for wisdom and compassion. It is a longing to give the gift of our gathered self in response to the beauty of the universe and the sacredness of self and of all that is. In the words of the poet, Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty–that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

May you ever more and more uncover the beauty of yourself and of all that is, and may you experience that beauty and its flowering in gratitude, compassion, and love.

Norman King, May 29, 2023