Transitions in Life
Transitions in Life
Norman King, June 19, 2023
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
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
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
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
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
I spoke last week of life as a process of endings and beginnings. These can take many forms. Every day, new light emerges from the darkness of night. Every season, the flowers of spring rise out of the snows of winter. In our own lives, hopefully, new joy arises from previous sorrows, and healing emerges from the preceding pain. So too, compassion for others springs from compassion for self. A sense of our own sacredness flows into awareness of the sacredness of others and of all that exists. A healthy self-love frees us from the weight of self-preoccupation and allows for an awareness, caring, and love for others.
Along these lines, I recently rediscovered an article, written many years ago, by Carol Christ and Charlene Spretnak called “Images of Spiritual Power In Women’s Fiction.” The article stresses how, unless women’s stories are told, the depths of their souls will not be known. I think that this view is universally true. It ties in with our emphasis that we must be in touch with our deepest experiences, both of light and shadow. We then have the task of naming these experiences, in a way that is true to these experiences, and not imposed on them. As theologian Tad Guzie insists, storytelling is the most basic way of naming experiences.
In my early twenties, I had a very striking, rather prolonged experience, that everything I had been taught was not necessarily wrong, but was unreal. It had been inherited, and felt like a jacket that no longer fit. I felt that my awareness and conviction had now to emerge from within, and not simply be tacked on, so to speak, from without. The thoughts and convictions I arrived at, might end up being the same as before, but they had to become my own.
The article by Christ and Spretnak gives a remarkable outlining of the process involved. As we awaken to our own inner voice and the depth of our own soul, questions arise as to who we are, why we are here, and what is our place in the universe. As they arise, the conventional answers are no longer acceptable. We mentioned before the play, Death of a Salesman, and the novel, Something Happened. Both find the prevailing worldview that stresses possessions, external success, and dominating power, is inadequate and even self-destructive.
According to Christ and Spretnak, the process of awareness, and its personal and social expression, follow a certain pattern. It is one of initial emptiness, followed by an awakening, and then a new naming. The emptiness involves the falling away of conventional wisdom, the social script, that now seems hollow and untrue. Then follows an awakening ro a new and more authentic sense of self and of one’s place in the universe. Finally, there is a new naming rooted in one’s real experience, which, in turn affects how a person relates to self and others, and finds expression in society.
The challenge, it seems to me, is to get below the surface clichés to the depth of our own actual experience and to try to name that experience as honestly as possible. This process would seem to involve recognizing both the gift and wounds of life, our joys and sorrows, yet still discern our underlying sacred worth, which can never be lost.
The two authors also speak of our “grounding in the powers or forces of being.” They add: “These powers of being are best understood as forces or currents of energy, larger than the self, which operate in all natural and social processes. These forces are the energies of life, death and regeneration, of being, non-being and transformation.”
I might add that these could be interpreted as energies flowing into the gift and call to bring something to life, even out of the deaths in the midst of life. They could be experienced in a sense of gratitude for our life, and indeed for all life and being. This experience would flow into a sense of responsibility to cultivate and share that gift in a life-giving way. I might also suggest that the underlying impulse of the universe is to impel us to understand and trust the process of life as pushing toward wisdom, compassion, and justice.
One aspect of an emerging viewpoint is to move beyond a view of people as isolated individuals in competition with others, where all relationships involve domination. The alternative is to recognize an underlying equality of all persons, and their essential relational and interdependent character. Ideally, then, all relationships, especially friendships and other intimate relationships, will be marked by this equality, by mutuality, sharing of presence and gifts, respect for diversity, and an underlying trust.
May you lean to discern, trust, and follow, your inmost self. May you uncover your own and others’ authentic sacredness. And may your life unfold in a wisdom, compassion, and justice, that is life-giving for yourself and for all who enter in some way into the circle of your light.
Norman King, April 24, 2023