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

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

The Longing for Beauty

Last week I spoke of listening to and from our own heart, our sacred core. The process of tuning in to that core may involve passing through the uncertainties, hurts, fears, and hostilities, that we all experience; then acknowledging, feeling, and sharing them in a safe place. The challenge is not to identify with any of these areas, not to see them as who we are. Rather, in the perspective, of Viktor Frankl and David Steindl-Rast, our challenge is also to tune into and respond to the meaning of each present moment.

Tuning in is a musical term, and along with story and the other arts, music, especially if beautiful, is able to reach that core. Eva Rockett wrote many years ago, in Homemakers magazine what has become a favourite statement of mine. She wrote that the beauty of music is able to reach behind all our defences and touch the core of the condensed self. Those defences may involve skating on the surface of life, a false conviviality, or any protective mask to hide who we are, even from ourselves.

What resonates with me here as well is that a pathway to our inmost care is through the experience of beauty. Sometimes our profound need for beauty goes unrecognized until we actually experience a beauty that touches our core. I recall vividly on my first trip to Europe how I was overwhelmed by the sculpture, the paintings, and perhaps mostly by the architecture of a city such a Paris. The very experience at once evoked and responded to an immense longing, of which I was not fully aware. On my return home, I found that I had to listen daily to classical music for a month. It was the only immediately available form of such beauty.

Often students who enjoy a group tour to Europe and its art galleries, experience an unnamed longing on their return. I think it is this same profound need for beauty in their lives. One image that has stuck in my mind is from the late science fiction writer, J. G. Ballard. In one novel, the only remaining birds are to be found stuffed and in museums. I recall as well a statement quoted by theologian, Jurgen Moltmann: “The birds are singing more than Darwin allows.” (A more recent approach sees Darwin as professing the survival of the kindest rather than the so-called fittest.)

It seems that there is in nature a superabundance, an overflow, an extravagance that goes well beyond mere survival. It is meaning. It is becoming more fully alive, rather than merely being alive. The fulness of life is certainly expressed in love, but also in beauty as well. In an early novel, Thomas Merton describes the underside of London, “as terrible as no music at all.” Elsewhere he writes: “Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm.”

What these words suggest is that music and all that is beautiful are essential to a meaningful life. In whatever ways are possible, it is necessary to open ourselves up to that experience.

Religious Studies scholar, Frederick Streng, writes that, in the experience of beauty, whether in a piece of music, work of art, poem or story, we touch the deepest meaning of being human, and sense that it is good that this beauty exists. It is like a gift enriching our spirit, drawing us out of ourselves, allowing us to glimpse another way of seeing life, and inviting us to expand our mind and heart.

I might add that the experience of beauty puts us in touch with what is at the heart of life, a presence and power of beauty that enriches our soul, calls to our spirit, and draws us out of ourselves. It is a power of healing that reaches deeper than and even unveils our wounds, in the very process of healing them.

In her book, BitterSweet, Susan Cain speaks of transforming sorrow into beauty. She sees this quality in the words and music of Leonard Cohen. He speaks of a cold and lonely hallelujah, a celebration of life despite its pain. The inseparable joy and sorrow of life transformed into beauty is also expressed in his song Anthem. It says that there is a crack in everything and that is how the light gets in. This is also the theme of the story, The Cracked Pot. The crack in the pot which allows water to leak out gives rise to beautiful flowers.

The beauty found in the world of nature and of the arts, is also found at the core of each person. The challenge is to experience this inner beauty in a world that regularly stresses superficiality, externals, and escapism. This inner beauty we have also called the sacred worth–in oneself or others. Thomas Merton writes of a powerful experience when he was struck by this awareness.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality. … If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed..

I also recall a few experiences when I had a sense of that inner beauty in someone, and how it is experienced as an unexpected gift, a challenge never to harm, and a calling to have a caring reverence for the person.

May you uncover your own inner beauty and that of those you meet, beneath all else that clutters our awareness. And may you be open to be transformed by the beauty of the natural world, of story and music, of all that is beautiful. This experience alone may contribute greatly to can make our life worthwhile.

Norman King, May 22, 2023

Listening from the Heart.

Last week I spoke of listening to ourselves and others. This is a listening to and from the sacred core or centre of ourselves, and attempting to tune into the core or centre of another person.

I recently heard a podcast on CBC Ideas, which suggested everyone is incredulous in some ways. Yet people who live in more isolated and homogenous communities, or who are exposed to only one worldview, are more readily threatened by exposure to anything different. This fear can lead to unreal projections on others and even violence. Behind this fear is a longing, in the face of the fragility of human life. This, the author suggests, is essentially a longing for meaning, a longing for a sense of worth and of purpose in our lives.

I have always expressed the underlying conviction that there is a sacred worth in each person and, really, in all that is. This worth is deeper than what we have and what we do. It belongs to who we are. It therefore has a gift character that should always be honoured by gratitude and respect.

In terms of listening, to tune in to ourselves and to one another is to sense the underlying worth and the longing for meaning in everyone we meet. Anxiety about the uncertainty of our worth and meaning may come out, not just in fear, but also in a defensive and provocative arrogance, in racism, sexism, and all the others isms. These may mask the experience of uncertainty, which is hard to bear, is frequently unacknowledged, and may have destructive consequences.

The challenge is to discern and/or to hold onto the conviction of the underlying worth of everyone we meet. Even when we need to oppose their actions as unjust or cruel, it is essential, as Thomas Merton insists, to recognize their humanity, however hidden or obscured it may be.

In the more usual situations, however, with those we meet in our everyday routines, it is a question of being at home with ourselves and seeing and acting from that home. This presence to oneself, without self-preoccupation, allows us to tune in more fully to others. It facilitates awareness of the person behind their words. It makes possible a discernment of who they are, beneath the uncertainties and insecurities of every life.

Alfred Tomatis, listening specialist, makes a fundamental distinction between hearing and listening: Hearing is simply the passive reception of sound. Listening is focusing on or attending to sound in order to make sense of it. It is the distinction between all the waves of sound that pass by our ears, and those we consciously tune into.

This is similar to David Steindl-Rast’s thought that to listen truly is to tune in to the meaning of life in each present moment. In a similar vein, Viktor Frankl says that while there is an underlying meaning to life, even in suffering. The basic task and responsibility is to respond to the challenge life presents to us in each living moment.

Theologians Gregory Baum and Karl Rahner both describe the human being as essentially a listener, a person challenged to be open to the meaning of life, to the truth of each situation. The path to become such a listener is that of silence and solitude, when we tune into our core self. It is also uncovered in the open and trusting conversation that occurs in friendship.

When music and story and other arts flow from the core of the artist, they can also reach to our own core. They can help us be in touch with our own core, and to name what is found there. One example is the ancient Greek story of Echo, who can only repeat what she hears until she finally fades away. I think that this story echoes the truth that to be fully and meaningfully alive, we must find our own inmost voice, not merely parrot the voice of others or of the conventional society or culture.

Two songs that express the need to listen beneath the surface are Starry, Starry Night and The Sound of Silence. In speaking of Vincent Van Gogh, the first song says: “Now, I think I know what you tried to say to me/ How you suffered for your sanity/ How you tried to set them free/ They would not listen, they’re not listening still/ Perhaps they never will.”

The words of the second song are similar: “And in the naked light, I saw/ Ten thousand people, maybe more/ People talking without speaking/ People hearing without listening.”

One of the challenges of our age is to learn to listen from the heart and to listen to the heart of ourselves and of one another. Then perhaps we may hear and speak from the voice, not of our hurt, fear, or hostility, but from our sacred worth.

Norman King, May 15, 2023

The Relational Context of Sacred Worth

I have repeatedly stressed the importance of recognizing and trying to experience deeply the sacred worth of ourselves, extending progressively to those near and far, and eventually to all beings. At the end of the last reflection, I mentioned briefly the thought that we are all relational and interdependent beings.

I would like this week to reflect on that relational quality. We have not created our own life, but have received it at the hands of others. Our life, by its very origins, has the character of gift. While some of the relational aspects of our lives may add to that gift, other relationships may have created more limitations, wounds, and even betrayals. These two opposing aspects of relationships either enhance or detract from our ability to feel our own worth. In addition, those who do not feel their own worth may also have difficulty conveying a sense of that worth to others.

Sam Keen, a writer on spirituality, has written that, from our background, we have received both gifts and wounds. We need to respond to the gifts with gratitude and the wounds with forgiveness. I might suggest that in every new or existing relationship, this is not a once and for all, but an ongoing process. Above all, the most important relationship we need to have is the one with ourselves.

One pathway that may facilitate the relationship with ourselves and with others is solitude, time spent quietly by ourselves. Spiritual writer, Morton Kelsey suggests that, in silence, we may allow our feelings to arise, disconnected from the outside world, and learn to deal directly with the depth of our own personal space.

In a similar vein, Gordon Cosby writes that silence will put us in touch with a host of feelings that, if put into words, will allow us to move toward a place of centredness that would reflect positively on our relationship with others.

Social worker, Clark Moustakas, also notes that, it is important to be open to experience, and not run from, the loneliness that is part of the human condition. We may then experience a new depth of awareness and meaning. Loneliness transformed into solitude may pave the way to healing, to true compassion, to intimate bonds with others and with all living creatures.

Another pathway that may affirm the relational quality of out lives is friendship. A trusted friendship involves affirming each other’s core identity, sharing safely our thoughts, feelings and experiences, and challenging positively our growth. Psychologist, Erich Fromm, says that love is possible only if two persons experience themselves from the centre of their existence. Only then can they communicate with each other from that centre. They are one with each other by being one with themselves. “There is only one proof for the presence of love,” Fromm writes; “the depth of the relationship, and the aliveness and strength in each person concerned.”

In sum, our essential relatedness does not negate our unique identity and worth, but enhances and expands it. Deeper and more than any possessions, power, and activity, it belongs to the very core of our being. May you come to acknowledge the depth of the gift of your sacred worth, and that of others. And may you share it with others in worthwhile and rewarding relationships.

Norman King, May 1, 2023