At Home in the Garden of Our Heart

Last week, using the image of tears, we suggested that there is a place within us that is deeper than the separation of thoughts and feelings into opposite like joy and sorrow, fear and hope and the like. And it is this same place that is able to contain all these feelings within an underlying sense of hope and even of love. We also added that there is in us an immense longing, a longing for meaning, for wholeness for home, to come home to our heart, our core, and from there be a home to one another.

Last week in my children’s literature class, we discussed the story, The Secret Garden. The story also portrays characters trapped in loss that has closed their hearts, yet still with a simmering longing that remains and is still to be uncovered. In the end, a healing love is awakened. The two main characters are ten year old Mary Lennox and her uncle Archie Craven. Mary has recently lost both parents, and Archie, her uncle, had lost his wife, Lily, ten years previously. In his grief, Archie has closed and locked the garden–both the outer garden which Lily loved, and the inner garden of his heart. In doing so, he has closed himself to life, reflected in the sickness of his son, Colin, and the deadness of his entire household.

Assisted by the boy, Dickon, who is at home in the natural world, Mary enters the outer garden, where she uncovers the dead leaves and debris, and discovers the roots of life that are still alive and ready to spring more fully to life. She also plants the seeds of new life. In effect, she is getting in touch with the secret garden of her own heart, her own inner core, and finding and fostering the life that is already there.

Gradually they awaken Archie’s son, Colin, from the deadness that has been imposed upon him, reflected in his gradual process of standing, walking, and running. He has in fact entered the secret garden of his heart and discovered and opened himself to  life and let it flower in friendship. Archie’s encounter with his now healthy son reawakens Archie’s own heart and the love that has been implicitly there and now reaches out freely towards his son, Colin, and his niece, Mary. The tears that flow in these scenes express not only the pain and longing inherent in life but also the love that awakens and flourishes, and gives new and fuller meaning to that life.

There is factually no garden within our heart, but the story is truthful as it recounts the slow transition from paralyzing grief to renewed love. In the same class, we looked at the stories of Winnie the Pooh and Pumpkin Soup, which also illustrate the difference between fact and truth. Certainly the portrayal of animals in these stories is not factual. But they do embody, in an accessible and safe way, the truth of our profound need for food, friendship, and beauty. These are reflected in the making of soup, the playing and singing of music, and the endurance of friendship despite a few hassles.

Within a context of imagination, wonder, and magic, stories such as these bring out what Susan Cain calls the bittersweet character of our experience of life. They not only recognize that joy and sorrow, and all the “both/ands” are present in all our experience. They also help us to name that experience. When we wish to convey our deepest experience, we can capture it best, though still in a limited way, not be mere flat statements, but by images and stories. Robert Frost tells us: “I took the road less travelled by and that has made all the difference.” He is speaking of choosing his direction in life, not about changing highways. In Robert Munsch’s story, Love You Forever, the woman says to her son at various stages in his life, and, later the son says to his elderly mother, “I’ll love your forever.” They are not talking about time on a clock, but about the enduring quality of their love.

A favourite expression is from Winnie the Pooh. Of their friendship, Piglet says to Pooh.: “We’ll be friends forever won’t we, Pooh,” asked piglet. “Even longer,” Pooh answered.. This comment is less about a length of time and more about the quality of the friendship, which is unbreakable, and therefore reliable and trustworthy. It teaches theses qualities to children. At the same time, it gives an assurance of stability in relationships.

Looked at from the eyes of the heart, stories such as these bring out the sacred worth of every human life and of all that is. They also acknowledge the interconnection of all that is. To experience further the gift character of everything is to evoke an underlying sense of gratitude. It is also a call to honour that sacred worth in ourselves and in all that is, and also to act with awareness of the interconnectedness of all that is.

May you come more and more to experience your own and others sacred worth, to live with an underlying sense of gratitude for this gift, to feel at home in this universe, and to respond to others and to life with a sense of generosity, compassion, and justice.

Norman King, November 14, 2022

Tears of Joy and Sorrow

In the last while, we have spoken of the difference between life scripts we inherit from without and our true story from within. We have also spoken of memory as the process not so much of recalling past events, but of remembering who we are. It is a process of uncovering our true story. It can also be described as a process of returning home to ourselves.

We have also spoken of imagination as exploring alternative possibilities beyond a seeming prison of inherited, status quo, scripts. One of the possibilities is to uncover our own inmost story. This awareness involves unveiling our identity beneath seemingly encrusted layers of inherited, often negative messages about ourselves. It is also, as a result, an uncovering of a life direction, a script, that does reflect and embody our core identity.

Certainly, it may mean departing from inherited, or even inflicted scripts, (however much they may have arisen out of genuine concern), Yet it is also a relational story, since our lives are inseparably bound up with others. It may then move towards relating to one another as we and they truly are, not as one projected image to another. It may move towards becoming, so to speak, a relation between persons rather than impersonators.

Yet beneath these layers that may protect or hide, yet also express, our inner self, there is an immense longing. It is the experience from our deepest core that reaches for something more, beyond where we are now. It may be imaged as a longing for somewhere over the rainbow, a somewhere that is elusive, mysterious, and felt rather than known. It may be described perhaps as a longing for meaning, for wholeness, for home. It may be a longing to come home to our heart, our core, and from there become a home to others.

As Dag Hammarskjold has written, this is a long journey. “The longest journey is the journey inwards, of one who has chosen his or her destiny, who has started upon the quest for the source of their being.” The myths and folk tales also speak of this journey. Odysseus wanders for many years in solitude and through many dangers before arriving home to his beloved Penelope. In a moving passage near the end of his journey home, Odysseus is welcomed to a banquet where a blind poet sings. The poet’s song strikes to the heart of Odysseus and moves hin to tears, because it is the song that names his very life. It certainly calls to mind a similar song by Roberta Flack, Killing Me Softly with His Song, echoed in the following words: “Strumming my pain with his fingers/ Singing my life with his words/ Killing me softly with his song.”

The folk tale tradition makes concrete this inner journey home by the image of the dark forest. Hansel and Gretel must pass through such a forest until they are guided by the singing of a beautiful bird. The forest stands for all the dark, unknown, unexplored shadowy regions of the self before their encounter in the bird the underlying beauty of their true voice and song. They are then able to share their inner riches with others, as indicated by the discovery of hidden jewels. Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood also make a perilous journey through forests. There they encounter the powerful feelings and tendencies of “red” side of life. Only as they pass through these experiences of loss and conflict are they able to love from deeply within.

Gordon Cosby, described as a pastor, mentor, and social activist, speaks similarly of facing and naming the darkness within us, “crying out the grief that has marked us and too often been covered over. “ He adds, however: “The journey to your own quiet centre is long and arduous. … But one day you will touch the Silence and understand and exclaim .. how little were my labours compared with the great peace I have found”

Perhaps, too, tears provide an image of this quest for home. It is remarkable that, beyond mere surface emotions, tears well up within us at moments not only of great sorrow but also of great joy. The same physical expression appears to express opposite experiences. Yet they may unveil more profoundly that there is a place within us that is deeper than, prior to the separation of joy and sorrow, and gathers them into the unity of our heart. An interesting expression of this thought is found in a song All things New, by Elaine Hagenberg. Its words, in part, are as follows: “Light after darkness, gain after loss, Strength after weakness, … Sweet after bitter, hope after fears, Home after wandering, … Sight after mystery, sun after rain, Joy after sorrow, peace after pain; Near after distant, gleam after gloom, Love aftеr loneliness.”

Tears are a form of water, and water is many things in human experience. Water is the turbulent sea that swallows us up and the restful waters that restore our soul. It is the flood that lays waste the land and the irrigation that sustains its crops. It is the fury of the storm that always frightens and the beauty of the rainbow that always surprises with joy. Water is our home in the womb before birth, the perspiration of our labour, and the tears of our deep feelings. Water is both death and life to human beings. If we are drowning, water tastes of death; if we are thirsting, water tastes of life. Water symbolizes all that may threaten to engulf us or swallow us up. Water also symbolizes all that assuages the thirsts at the core of our being, and all that renews and restores us. Our tears are perhaps the container of our inmost feelings.

As in a reinterpretation of the story of Pandora’s Box, all the joys and sorrows of life, the contradictions of experience, may be contained within hope. And we might add, contained within and ultimately rooted in caring, compassion, and love.

May all the tears of joy and sorrow in you life flow into your heart, heal and transform you, and give you a living awareness of your own sacredness and that of all of life. And may they flow from you heart into a world so in need of your unique caring.

Norman King, November 7, 2022

Memory as Remembering Who We Are

Last week we mentioned the importance of discovering what we have called a true story–a true image of who we are and a worthwhile script to follow in living out our life. We need a story that takes into account all our spiritual richness and complexity and depth, as well as our inner wounds and failures. At the root of it all would be the our ineradicable sacred worth and our connection with all that is.

We might distinguish here between our true story and our inherited script. Our true story would be the unfolding of our life according to who we are in our inmost self. Our inherited script would be what we have been told we are from childhood on by family, school, culture, society, etc. What can happen is that we lose sight of who we truly are, we forget who we truly are.

In an article on folktales as rooted in the experience of wonder, G. K. Chesterton 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 common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awe-filled instant we remember that we forget. …

These words suggest that memory is far more than recalling past events, it is really recalling to our mind and spirit, who we truly are. In the thought of Gabor Maté, it is tuning in to our need for authenticity that has been obscured by our need to belong. This need leads us to set aside our authentic self in order to make ourselves seemingly acceptable to others.

An example is found in the well-known the story of the prodigal son, A young man, after securing his future inheritance, squanders it completely. He then arrives at the end of the line in his life after having followed a false script. He then remembers that it once was better. He feels he has lost his family position, but thinks that he might get a servant’s job with his father. Yet, on his return, his father greets him as his beloved son, despite his time of lostness. The story suggests that our sacredness is deeper than and not obliterated by any wrongness. Our true self is not lost, even if we fail to see it or even violate it. Yet sometimes it needs a caring other to help us get in touch with and see our worth and our true identity.

Memory is not then just related to past facts but to our present identity. We might remember a task of memorization required in our schooling, possibly especially in the daunting challenge of studying for exams. It is interesting, however, that one expression for such an activity is to learn and know something “by heart.” There is also a song by Eva Cassidy called I Know You by Heart, and part of a verse reads: “I see your sweet smile/ Shine through the darkness/ It’s line is etched in my memory/ So I’d know you by heart.”

The term heart here refers to the core (from the Latin word for heart, cor) or inmost centre of our being. If we understand something or someone in our heart, that person or event is so deeply rooted in us that they remain always in our awareness, at least in the background. They are ready to be drawn upon at any time. They that they remain an integral part of us, and shape who we are and who we are becoming.

When we remember something of this kind, the feeling level of what is recalled, whether joyful or painful, is also a part of this memory. If we hear a song, for example, that we associate with a particular time or place or person, we feel again what we felt at that time. The memory is not just a return to a past situation but is its experience anew in the present. The same experience may occur if we look at a photograph that evokes our connections with those whose lives are or have been intertwined with our own

In both these cases, memory is not just a remote connection with something long gone, but more of a tuning in to our identity. It is a bringing forth not just what we have done or has been done to us, but a calling forth of who we are.

May you always remember, may you always know by heart, who you truly are in you inmost sacred self. And may you find in your heart the core of who you are and all those who have entered into your heart and remain there always.

Freedom as Gathering and Gift of Self

Last week, we spoke of imagination as a gateway to freedom. Imagination does so by opening up alternatives, new possibilities, in how we think and feel, in our attitudes and actions, our way of life. Two themes come from this reflection: one is the need for what spiritual writer, Wayne Muller, calls “sabbath time.” The other is the need to expand our understanding of freedom. Today, we will mention briefly the notion of sabbath time and then look at the topic of freedom.
For Muller, sabbath time is a time free from work and other responsibilities, where we can just enjoy being alive. “In Sabbath time,” he writes, “we are valued not for what we have done or accomplished, but simply because we have received the gentle blessing of being miraculously alive.” It is a time we spend on what is good for its own sake, and not just a means to something else. ​“Sabbath, “ he writes, “is more than the absence of work; it is not just a day off, when we catch up on television or errands. It is the presence of something that arises when we consecrate a period of time to listen to what is most deeply beautiful, nourishing, or true. It is time consecrated with our attention, our mindfulness, honouring those quiet forces of grace or spirit that sustain and heal us.”
One common view of freedom, yet mistaken, I believe, is to see freedom as the absence of any commitment and to see others as an obstacle to our freedom. A similar view sees freedom as the ability to do what we feel like as long as we don’t hurt anyone.
Yet what we feel like on the surface might differ considerably from what we truly want from our inmost core. What we feel like on the surface might arise from the latest commercial we have seen on television–such a getting a new cell phone–or the slightest whim that comes into our mind. On a deeper level, the script of what we wish for–such as financial success rather than friendship–may arise from the conditioning of our society. Or it may spring from our need to belong which Gabor Maté says may obscure our deeper need for authenticity.
I like to say that our freedom is as wide as our vision and as deep as our understanding. It may take a long time to discover our deepest longing. I may be hidden beneath the clutter of many strands of conditioning. Psychologist Erich Fromm has written that much of our activity is not really free but driven by compulsion or fear. To be free requires a process of coming to an awareness of the script that we are actually following in our life. This inherited script may even go against our own deepest longing. Until we become aware of that script, we cannot either affirm, modify or change it.
I remember a conversation years ago with a man who had come to the college to teach after serving in a business capacity for a long time. It was a small college where faculty from every discipline met in the lunch room or common room. This man enjoyed being there immensely, and one day, with a tone of sadness, he said to me, “I’ve missed a lot.”
To be in touch with, understand, and be a t home with our inmost self, what Thomas Merton calls our “true self,” requires times of solitude and silence, as well as open conversation with trustworthy friends. We are also aided by exposure to literature, music, painting and other arts. These can put us in touch with our inner self and help to name our deepest experiences.
Writer and activist, Edwina Gately, says that out of darkness and silence she came to see her life work to be with the women of the streets of Chicago. Over time, as a rapport of trust developed, they began to share bits of their life stories with her. Almost all of them had been victims of some form of childhood violence. The positive counterpart is expressed by the monk, Basic Pennington: “If a child always received such totally gratuitous, totally affirming love, the child would grow up to be one of the most beautiful persons this world has known.”
In other words, the intelligent and genuine caring of others enhances, and even to some degree, makes possible our freedom. To the extent that we are assisted in our struggle towards a deep sense of our own worth, we become freer persons. We are gradually freed from being driven to approach others only as needs or threats, rather than as who they and we truly are. We become freed as well from the burden of trying to prove or earn a worth that we do not fee.
The example of Edwina Gately also brings out that the caring that enhances freedom may involve listening from the heart to the stories of others. I recall the words of writer, John Shea, who says that any sorrow can be borne provided a story can be told about it.  And, it should be added, provided there is a caring listener to that story.
What these examples suggest is that our freedom is enabled and developed by the caring of others, expressed often in listening. They also suggest that freedom is itself expressed, not in opposition to others, but in sharing with them. Freedom is at least in some degree fulfilled in sharing our stories and our story with others, in sharing who we are. In this perspective, freedom is the capacity, not to refuse ourselves, but to give ourselves. If understanding can be viewed as the gathering of ourselves into the hands of our awareness, then freedom can be regarded as the gift of our gathered self.
A further thought, noted by theologian Karl Rahner, is that the more we put our whole selves into a decision, the more we are shaped by that commitment, the less reversible it is. While we do shape ourselves by individual choices, our freedom is more fundamentally concerned with the kind of person we become and the direction we give to our lives, Our underlying freedom is less about what we do and more about who we are.
At the same time, we do not become the person we are in isolation, but only in relation to others and the world in which we live. Sam Keen expresses it in these words.  “Everyone has a fascinating story to tell, an autobiographical myth. And when we tell our stories to one another, we, at one and the same time, find the meaning of our lives and are healed from our isolation and loneliness. Strange as it may seem, self-knowledge begins with self-revelation. We don’t know who we are until we hear ourselves speaking the drama of our lives to someone we trust to listen with an open mind and heart.”
We may recall finally the importance of discovering what we have called a true story–a true image of who we are and a worthwhile script to follow in living out our life. We need a story or script that is not superficial, naive, warped or destructive, but one that takes into account all our spiritual richness and complexity and depth, as well as our inner wounds and failures  We need a vision of that enables and challenges us to celebrate our joys, to survive our sorrows, to share our lives, and to build our world.
May you become more and more aware of who you truly are and of the sacred worth of who you are., And may you find in friendship and in social outreach meaningful ways to share who you are.

Norman King, October 24, 2022

Imagination: Gateway to Freedom

Many years ago, when my children were small, I came across a bookmark that really resonated with me. It was a quotation from Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
It recalled to me the work of Latin American theologian, Rubem Alves. He also stressed the importance of imagination as essential to get beyond the confines of the present socio-economic culture. While I have forgotten much of his writing, I recall one statement: that the most important thing we can do is to teach good literature to children. It develops their imagination to think of many and different possibilities. They don’t regard the present situation as unchangeable reality. In a similar vein, the late Robert Kennedy stated: “Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.”
Recently, my friend Jane had her then 5-year-old grandson staying with her during the COVID shutdown, while he attended virtual school in the morning. In the afternoon they went exploring in their imagination. Out of these journeys came a recently published collection of poems for children of all ages. At the beginning, they write: “These poems are the record of our travels together into the world of the imagination where anything is possible.” On the back cover is a fascinating reflection on imagination.
“The world of the imagination is a a place where we can create adventures where always we are free to travel, make friends, explore our universe, and free to become whatever we choose. In our imagination, we are free to cry, to laugh, to ponder, to hope, to dream. Whether adults or children, wonder and joy our ours to see, hear, feel, respond to, and share these magical moments.
     “Our hope is that these poems will awaken your spirit and fill you with gratitude and joy for the experiences that await you in your imagination.”
(This book is available through our website:, or by email:
There is a marvelous children’s story by novelist, Margaret Laurence, called The Olden Days Coat. In the story, 10-year-old Sal is disappointed that she has to spend Christmas at her grandmother’s house, shortly after her grandfather had died. One day there, she explores an old trunk, where she finds a girl’s winter coat. She tries it on and is magically transported into the past where she meets a young girl who turns out to be her grandmother as a child.
Another children’s novel, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pierce, also involves a trip to the past. A young boy, Tom, is sent to live for a time with his aunt and uncle. He discovers an old grandfather clock. When the clock strikes thirteen instead of twelve, it opens up into a garden of the past. There he meets and forms a friendship with a young girl who gradually gets older in the course of his many visits.
While both stories involve an imaginary trip to the past, they are a reminder of the profound connection that can exist between children and grandparents. Often the older person will be a storyteller to the younger, and both will venture into the realm of imagination. Both grandparent and child are defined not by jobs or productivity, but by presence. In some ways, both are closer to the mystery in which our lives are enveloped.. I recall once giving a talk at a local hospital. Afterwards I spoke with an older woman who was a nun and a retired nurse, who now did volunteer work at the hospital. She said that that morning she had helped a child to be born and, in the afternoon, assisted at the death of an old man. She said that she was struck at the similarity of the two experiences. They both had a sacred quality about them.
Often in the busyness of life, we can become immersed in what is immediately demanding, and forget for a time what is really important in life. I recall a woman once saying to me that she was too busy having children to really enjoy their presence. There is a song by the late Harry Chapin, called Cat’s in the Cradle. The father and son talk about getting together and spending time with each other, but they never do.
Both the young and the old may be closer to the mystery of life that echoes strongly in birth and death. People like Wayne Muller stress the importance in our life of what he calls “sabbath time.” This is a time when we leave aside for a moment our busy routines and pause to enjoy and reflect upon life, a mystery that carries both joy and sorrow, both gardens and wastelands. Folk tales begin with the words “once upon a time.” These words can take us into the realm of imagination which can shine a gentle light on the mystery of life.
Writer, G. K. Chesterton, says that it was good to be in the folk tale. Immersing oneself in that realm which he calls “elfland,” evoked a sense of gratitude. Gratitude, he adds, is the test of all happiness. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. He is grateful as well for the gift of two miraculous legs to put in his stockings.
In the story, The People Could Fly, enslaved people are afflicted terribly by the cruelty of the enslavers. They are still able to rise above these horrors in their imagination. There also they form their plans to escape by the Underground Railroad.  Viktor Frankl, recalls that, even in the horror of the concentration camp, he was able to commune in imagination with his absent wife, as well as the beauty of nature.
Imagination here is certainly an escape from a terrible world. But as we have suggested, it is far more than that. It is the possibility to explore new worlds, whether through story or music or painting and even through daydreaming. It can expand our understanding of self and of life, help us modify our attitudes, alter the script we have been following in our life. By opening up all these possibilities, it not only expands our freedom but can also sustain and develop our hope.
May you ever enrich your own imagination. May you then grow in freedom and hope. And may this growth find expression in compassion for yourself and others who share your life in near or distant ways.
Norman King
October 17, 2022

Longing for Meaning, for Home

We have spoken lately of the inseparable joy and sorrow, fear and love, labour and rest, darkness and light that are bound up with every human life. We have also referred to the images of eternal rest and perpetual light which ancient peoples used to express their longing for meaning and fulfillment. We have also mentioned that one element in grief is the felt experience of incompleteness–of a life, a relationship, even a conversation. Each person who enters lovingly into out life holds a place that no other can occupy. When they depart, that space remains empty, except for the love that remains there. The key theme is that the degree to the person is loved, the greater the loss. Yet memories may turn from pain to gratitude and even joy.
I think that at the root of felt incompleteness, arising from the contradictions of life and the whole spectrum of feelings, there is a profound longing, a yearning for a something more. This thought is echoed in the words of theologian Daniel McGuire:
      Persons look at themselves and the world around them. They see the bird in flight, the rose in bloom, the infant blessing us   with smiles, and they utter the primal expression of religious consciousness: ‘There is more to this than meets the eye.’ The religious inference is that deep down in things there is a creative presence, a directing force, that underlies the complexities and the beauties of our setting.
This longing seems ever present, even if unnoticed, and arises from the deepest level within us. Sometimes the busyness of our lives may cover it over for a time. Or we may expect that the next thing we acquire, the next relationship we form, or the next adventure we undertake, will relieve this inner ache. Yet we may then hear a piece of beautiful music, or be visited by an undefined sadness, or notice how swiftly our days are passing. Then once again we feel that inner longing. As I once expressed it, we go through life with a question that reaches farther than any answer we receive, and with a yearning that reaches further than anything we attain or receive. There remains always an unanswered question and an unstilled longing. As one writer put it, our hopes are always more than can come true, our demands on life are always larger than life is willing to give.
Theologian, Karl Rahner comments that we ourselves and all persons, things, and institutions we encounter are finite—that is, limited, fragile, perishable, contingent.  And we are drawn from our inmost core to reach out, consciously and freely, for something more than, beyond the finite, an outreach for  “the infinite.” The deepest dimension of all human experience, Rahner says, is a hunger for the infinite. From the inmost core of our being, we are drawn to reach beyond all that is finite for the infinite.
In more concrete terms, we are looking for something somewhere over the rainbow. We are seeking a beauty beyond the storms of life; a home beyond any we presently experience. Perhaps this is what Plato the philosopher intimated when he spoke of the world of ideas of which the physical world is just a copy. The beauty, truth, and goodness, the lasting home of our longing, is somehow suggested by our experience but not contained by that experience.
These thoughts are very elusive. But they recall the example of the child asking the question of where he or she came from. The child is not seeking a technical answer, but a story, a story in which he or she is the main character and is welcomed into the family or, hopefully a caring group. The child is really asking, we suggested: “Am I important and do I belong?”
This appears to be a question that remains always beneath the surface of our lives. It suggests that our infinite longing may be expressed as longing that the story of our life be a good story, That is to say, a story in which we have a sacred worth and a lasting belonging and purpose. It is a longing for a life of enduring meaning. As we have said, we cannot prove such a worth, but only discover a worth already there, as did Narcissus. This discovery implies a recognition of that worth as a gift. It is something always there, As such, it evokes a sense of gratitude for what is, rather than a desperate and futile attempt to prove a worth that ever appears absent. Often it is a caring or caring others that treat us a having an intrinsic value that makes possible this discovery.
Another image comes from an understanding of compassion. Compassion might be understood as a caring space around another’s pain or suffering. That space is empty in the sense that it is free of the caring person’s own clutter, empty of their persona agenda, preconceived thought, or advice. It is simply a being with, a being present to another.
An analogy to Plato’s approach is perhaps found in the Jewish mystical tradition, the Kabbalah. Susan Cain, in Bittersweet, describes it this way. “In the beginning all of creation was a vessel filled with divine light. It broke apart and now shards of holiness are strewn all around us. … Our task is simple–to bend down, dig them out, pick them up. And in so doing, to perceive that light can emerge from darkness, death gives way to rebirth.”
This story suggests to me is that the light we seek is beyond all the shards. Yet our concrete response is to the shards. We recognizing both the infiniteness of our longing and regard the shards as our glimpse of that infiniteness. We express our respect for the sacredness of life–as a gift beyond all seizing–in our striving to be compassionate and just. We do so through our response to concrete persons and situations in our actual life circumstances.
In a similar vein, but with a different image, theologian Karl Rahner notes that if we persist in remaining silent for a tine, we may notice that everything is as if suffused by a nameless remoteness, as if surrounded by what sense like emptiness. He then suggests that we may trust the emptiness; it is not nothingness. Perhaps we may envision the universe as pervaded and enveloped by an underlying unseen energy, whose thrust is towards compassion.
These words seem somewhat stammering and elusive. Yet the core is simple. Life is certainly ambiguous and mysterious. Perhaps all that counts is to hold fast to the sacredness of persons and of all reality, and to try to embody that conviction and hope ever more fully in our concrete lives. That is perhaps the essence of our longing and our path to home.
Norman King
October 09, 2022

Rest and Light

Along with Leonard Cohen, one of my favourite singers has been Louis Armstrong. In the past few days, I listened to again and played in class his recording of That Lucky Old Sun. In his voice there is both a feeling of longing and of hope. At the same time, he tells of his struggles with work and family life. These are also, at least implicitly, bound up with his love and concern for his family.“ Fuss with my woman, toil for my kids/ Sweat till I’m wrinkled and gray/ While that lucky old sun has nothin’ to do/ But roll around heaven all day.”
Another image, expressed in That Lucky Old Sun, is that of light. In a time before electricity, people’s lives were profoundly affected by the alternating rhythm of day and night, light and darkness. I remember a friend who lived in a dangerous situation commenting that when he awoke in the morning, his immediate feeling was gratitude. He was grateful that he had lived to see the dawning of another day. Another person jokingly remarked that if he awoke in the morning and did not see flowers, he got up.
The words themselves, and their situation in a song, express the theme of transforming sorrow into beauty. They reflect the both/and of life, the inseparability of love and fear, joy and sorrow, light and darkness. Containing these words in the beauty of music or the unity of a story is a concrete way of saying that they are meaningful. They express the conviction and hope that there is a lasting worth and purpose to every life. Sorrow and pain do not take away that meaning, but are somehow encompassed within it. At the same time, there are moments in life that make it difficult to feel that value.
The imaginative context of toilsome struggle and utter darkness certainly questions everything. Yet they draw forth the profound human yearnings of hope for lasting meaning. This context leads perhaps to their calling forth for a rest that lasts and a light that endures. One verse of That Lucky Old Sun asks: “Show me that river/ Take me across/ Wash all my troubles away/ Like that lucky old sun, give me nothing to do/ But roll around heaven all day.” The image is one of crossing to a new land, a new life, where the accumulated silt of the dark winters of our lives are washed away. It recalls the image of our longing for “somewhere over the rainbow,” for new light and life after the storms of our life.
I find fascinating some of the images that express the fulfillment of the longing that pervades a human life. Two predominant images are the ancient ones of rest and light. In terms of rest, the laboriousness of much of ancient life, as well as the stress levels of contemporary life, make the image of a time and place of rest something desirable. Aside from the image of laying someone to rest, funeral rituals have expressed a hope for eternal rest. In Latin the term used is requiem aeternam. And the music and ritual that accompany a funeral are called a “requiem.” I have found John Rutter’s Requiem a beautiful rendition of this theme.
The image of rest expresses the notion of a release from the striving, the longing, the hurt, the failures, all the wearying things that go to make up the struggling, wrestling, coping character of life–a rest from life’s labours, so to speak.  In his book, Sabbath, Wayne Muller emphasizes the need of time where, “we are valued not for what we have done or accomplished, but simply because we have received the gentle blessing of being miraculously alive. … [where] “the sweet womb of sacred rest enfolds us, heals and restores us.” He adds:
“These are the useless things that grow in time: To walk without purpose, to no place in particular, where we are astonished by the textured bark of an oak. To notice the colour red showing itself for the first time in the maple in the fall. To see animals in the shape of clouds, to walk in clover. To fall into an unexpected conversation with a stranger, and find something delicious and unbidden take shape. To taste the orange we eat, the juice on the chin, the pulp between teeth. To take a deep sigh, an exhale followed by a listening silence. To allow a recollection of a moment with a loved one, a feeling of how our life has evolved. To give thanks for a single step upon the earth. To give thanks for any blessing, previously unnoticed; the gentle brush of a hand on a lover’s body, the sweet surrender of sleep in the afternoon.”
A different, though, related approach is offered by physician Gabor Mate (The Myth of Normal). He says that every human being has a true, genuine, authentic self. Yet the failure to experience unconditional loving acceptance, to have that basic worth affirmed by family or society, causes a wound to the emotional being, the psyche, the soul. It disconnects us from our true self. Healing is the process of re-connection, of movement to wholeness. As in the story of Narcissus, the pathway to wholeness is the discovery of an image of ourselves as lovable, that is, as having a sacred worth. Susan Cain, in Bittersweet, elaborates that the key to fulfillment is learning to love who you are–something which is unconditional and unceasing–rather than just what you have done.
In this context, I think that the meaning of rest is not just ceasing from activity, from keeping busy,  which is often a form of escapism. It is rather resting comfortably in who we are. This includes a recognition of limitations, tendencies, faults, yet the conviction that who we are is deeper than and finally untouched by all of these.
Darkness has been associated with the unknown, with fear and danger. Light has been said to dispel the darkness. Spring is a time of lengthening days, a time of more light, and a time when new life emerges again from the darkness of winter. In some stories, light marks the beginning of creation. Enlightenment marks the dawning of a new and fuller awareness. Besides speaking of eternal rest, the early liturgies also spoke of “lux perpetua,” perpetual light. In this context, the image expresses the hope for a light and warmth that dispel fear, overcome betrayal and brokenness, and convey vision and awareness.
Along with enduring hope, are united love and beauty. The ancient Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice suggests that love and beauty belong together. The experience of what is beautiful draws us out of ourselves but in a non-possessive way. It invites us not to grasp but to be grasped by, to be overwhelmed by the beauty of an instrument, a voice, a human soul. Perhaps only a love that is not grasping, only a love that sees and responds to the beauty of a person, is truly mature and fully life-giving.
As in Leonard Cohen’s song, we all have cracks of vulnerability, grief, and sorrow, It is perhaps in these cracks that the light of hope, love, and meaning gets in. And perhaps these cracks allow a glimpse of the sacred and beautiful self that lies beneath and is untouched by all the trials of life.
Norman King
October 02, 2022

The Cracks Where the Light Gets in

Last week we mentioned that our life includes both joys and sorrows, winters and springs, darkness and light, storms and rainbows. It is important to acknowledge that our lives contain these contradictory experiences, and to try to name them truthfully. The challenge is to transform sadness and longing into beauty. With Leonard Cohen, whatever loneliness and brokenness we experience, it is always possible to sing Hallelujah. These may be the cracks where the light get in. Yet it certainly may take some working through, and the support of wisely caring others.

Richard Rohr reminds us, too, that any sorrow that is not transformed will be transmitted. It will be inflicted on others rather than entrusted to them.

This past week, I attended a presentation on grief which named and responded to some common cultural assumptions about grief that can have limiting and harmful effects. The presentation also brought out some creative ways to work through the grieving process rather than suggesting that we deny our real feelings or simply “get over it.”

I recall the words of a friend of Thomas Merton, spiritual writer, after Merton’s untimely, accidental death at the age of 53. The friend said that Merton’s death left a hole that would never be filled. To me, this remark says something about each person we come to know and love and who knows and loves us. Each one holds a unique place in our heart that no one else can occupy or replace. If we lose a copy of a book, it can be replaced. But if we have underlined that book and written notes in it, that particular copy becomes irreplaceable. The same is true of someone who has written words on our heart.

At t he same time, there is a process of transformation that can occur. In the early stages of grief, the memories we have may sting as we recall them. Later, they may be recalled with joy. On Thursday, I heard a fascinating talk and discussion with author, Lawrence Hill. He answered a question concerning the difficulty of writing about situations of suffering, cruelty, or injustice. He responded that, while it is difficult, these same characters also had counterbalancing experiences of joy and love and the like. He mentioned that the main character in The Book of Negroes is first introduced as an elderly woman. This portrayal indicates that she has endured and transcended any sorrows that have filled her life. As a result, these are held within a container of hope.

As our re-interpretation of the story of Pandora suggests, all the losses and sorrows of life are best held within a container of hope and love. This is the light that gets into the cracks of pain in our life. It is interesting that the sharing of bread involves its breaking. Our openness to the totality of life can include both the opening of our arms in a gesture of embrace. It can also be a process of breaking open that leaves us vulnerable yet ready to receive. As in The Selfish Giant, it may be through the cracks of vulnerability in our lives that new life can flow in and out.

There is a children’s story by Margaret Laurence, called The Olden Days Coat, which I find magical. In the story, ten-year-old Sal is disappointed when she and her parents spend Christmas at her grandmother’s house, instead of at her usual home, as they did before her grandfather died. In order to pass the time, Sal explores the contents of an old trunk. While searching through old photographs, she comes across a little girl’s winter coat, tries it on, and finds herself transported into the past. There she meets and makes a connection with her grandmother who shows her a box carved with a butterfly. This beautiful little box then becomes her present-day gift.

This story certainly reflects the unique connection between grandparents and grandchildren. It also suggests that gifts received continue to be shared over generations. Perhaps, more than anything, it shows how love, concretely expressed, may be transmitted across generations. Whenever anyone enters our heart, they remain there and become part of who we are. They are then shared with anyone who comes to share our heart. As in the story, however, it may take some time for us to realize this truth.

We spoke earlier of grieving. Perhaps the integration and transcending of grieving means that we allow our heart to be enlarged and opened by all who have entered in a caring way. We then share that legacy with all who in some way come to share our heart. In a somewhat similar way, writer of spirituality, Ron Rollheiser, says that we best remember those who have died by developing in ourselves their best qualities, even the simplest.

May you come to experience a heart open to all that is contained with the gift of life, and share it in a compassionate way with all those who in some way come within the circle of your light

Norman King, September 25, 2022