Gratitude flowing into kindness and compassion

In speaking of kindness last week, a quotation from the late educator, John Holt, came to mind. I looked it up and I’ll include it here. “I think that the social virtues are an overflowing,” he says, “they are a surplus; people have enough kindness for others when they have enough kindness for themselves –otherwise not. Holt adds: “My very strong sense is that if children are allowed to grow up in a way which enables them to become adults with a sense of their own dignity and competence and worth, they will extend these feelings to include other people.”

What is presupposed for kindness, compassion, generosity, or a sense of justice, towards others is the conviction of our own worth, as Holt stresses. Theologian Monika Hellwig writes in a similar vein that, along with some degree of physical well-being and personal safety, one of the requirements for a genuine concern for others is “positive self-image.” “Love and generosity do not come people with a negative shame-plagued self- image.”

Where a sense of self-worth is present, there is an undertone of gratitude in our life. This gratitude contains an at least implicit sense that life is a gift and a gift that is valuable. From an early age, for example, a small child will ask: “Where did I come from.” This question contains a recognition that they did not originate themselves but came from something or someone else. A colleague once remarked to me as well that any time someone thinks of themselves as a self-made person, they need only look at their navel for a reality check.

As I have recalled before, many years ago, a young woman told me how, as a young child, she ran to her mother one day to ask, “where did I come from?” Her mother, wishing to be responsive to the child’s curiosity in a healthy manner, calmly explained to the child the facts of procreation, gestation, and birth. The child then darted off to pose the same question to her grandmother, who responded in a somewhat different matter. “Well,” she replied, “a few years ago, there was a feeling here that something was missing, and that a new child was needed to round off the family. So one day we all went out to the garden patch behind the house, found the biggest, roundest cabbage, brought it into the house, and plunked it down on the kitchen table. We all gathered around, and pulled back the leaves, and there you were!”

The young woman told this story with an obvious delight, and recalled how, after that time, she never bothered to ask her parents where she came from, but returned again and again to hear the grandmother’s version. After some reflection, it dawned on me that the child did so because the grandmother answered her real question. When a child inquires about origins, he or she is not really seeking a technical report. The child is looking for a story, and a story in which he or she is the main character and is welcomed into the family. In more abstract terms, the child is essentially asking, “Am I important?” and “Do I belong?” The child’s question really comes out of the child’s longing. From the very beginning, it seems that there is deep-seated human yearning to be of value, to be worth something. Yet it is a yearning that comes with a question mark, a degree of uncertainty, a need for affirmation of that worth. And the way in which that worth is most tangibly imparted is to convey to the child a sense that the child is welcomed and wanted, that the child has a home in the heart of another. Perhaps the most vivid image is that of the excited child rushing into the arms of a caring person who delights in his or her presence.

The story of Sleeping Beauty also gives a positive answer to the child’s question, using the image of the child as a gift. The story begins with a king and queen longing for a child. Then, as the queen bathes in a pond, a frog emerges and says that their wish will be granted and that a child will be born to them within a year. This image implies that the child is not merely a product of the parents but a gift entrusted to them. The bathing image also suggests that a washing or purification of mind and heart is essential to receive this gift in a worthy manner. The gift image further suggests that the child is, from the beginning, a distinct person, entrusted to the parents, and also someone to be received with gratitude. To do so is to respond positively to the implied question of the child: “Am important and do I belong.”

There are other implications of the story as well. The father’s unsuccessful attempt to banish all spindles from his kingdom reminds us that we cannot prevent our children from experiencing their own pain. Yet this pain does not detract from but may be a pathway to greater meaning and therefore greater gratitude.

The period of sleep, the surrounding by a hedge of thorns, and the subsequent re-awakening through love, suggest that sometimes the pains in our life may lead us to withdraw, and to build protective walls around ourselves. Yet if we are able to see beyond the hedges of thorns around one another and recognize the beauty that is there, however dormant or sleeping, we may awaken one another to our own worth and the possibility of love, the sharing of that worth with one another.

In other words, as Viktor Frankl came to stress, the suffering we may experience in our lives does not take away its meaning, but may in fact, enrich us, at least over time, and with the help of one another. In this sense, life is a gift even though it may sometimes hurt. Yet we may need one another to that come to and accept that realization, and experience the gratitude that follows.

Gratitude flows from the recognition of life and of our own life as a gift, and as a worthwhile or precious gift. From this experience comes as well a generosity, and impulse to share that gift. It also flows into compassion, a recognition of and response to the sacredness of others who are hurting.

May you always experience a gratefulness for life and for the unique person that you are, and may you learn more and more to share the gift of who you are and your particular gifts with others who in some way enter your life.

Kindness and Compassion: the Real Revolutionary Qualities

We have most recently spoken of vulnerability and of healing. Vulnerability involves an awareness of the possibility of being hurt, yet reveals the paralysis of building protective walls around ourselves. A gradually growing trust allows us to share something of who we are with one another and, in humanist psychologist, Erich Fromm’s words, to “escape the prison of our aloneness.”

A key ingredient in this process is listening with openness. Such listening, as we mentioned last week, is, according to physician, Rachel Remen, is “the most powerful tool of healing.” In attentive listening out of our silence, and with care, we provide a safe place for one another, a place of acceptance of who we are. To repeat her words: “Our listening creates a sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person, places where they have been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and others.”

Behind such listening lies caring, compassion and kindness, which we might explore this week. Spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, observes that the Greek word for compassion means to feel in your guts, and the Hebrew word means to feel in your womb, to tremble in the centre of your being. The Latin word, from cum and passio, means to suffer with, to enter into the pain or hurt of another with caring. Along similar lines, a key element in dialogue between persons, often with different worldviews, is to be open to be changed by what we hear. Compassion also implies allowing ourselves to be moved by what we hear. It means to have an empty but caring space within us, clear of our own clutter and agendas, so as to receive another as they are.

Closely related to compassion is kindness. A few days before she died, writer June Caullwood was asked about her beliefs. She answered simply, “ I believe in kindness.” she gave the example of opening the door for another who was perhaps struggling with carrying groceries or who was weakened by age. The Dalai Lana has also expressed a corresponding conviction. “My religion is simple,” he said, “my religion is kindness.”

The word kindness and the word kin have similar roots. It means to sense a family tie with someone or something. It means essentially to feel a connection with someone in a caring way. Political scientist, Michael Ignatieff, whom we have quoted before, has written about the extension of this kinship and caring in a gradually expanding way. He expresses the conviction: “Believing fiercely in the value of those we love is the very condition of believing in the value of those farthest away.” He adds: “Human rights derive their force in our conscience from this sense that we belong to one species, and that we recognize ourselves in every single human being we meet.” We would add that what is foundational to this process is a conviction of our own sacred worth, as well as an extension of that worth beyond the human level to the whole community of beings with whom we share our planetary home, earth, and with whom we form part of the immense universe.

In their book, On Kindness, Barbara Taylor and Adam Philips stress that kindness, rather than competitive individualism, is essential to our fulfillment as human beings. They describe kindness as the ability to bear the vulnerability of others and therefore of ourselves. They also use the term, “open-heartedness, the sympathetic expansiveness linking self to others.” They note that while resilience and resourcefulness are possible, still everybody is vulnerable at every stage in their lives, subject to illness, accident, personal tragedy, political and economic reality. They observe further,: “Bearing other people’s vulnerability–which means sharing in it imaginatively and practically without needing to get rid of it, …entails being able to bear one’s own.” Their thought is reminiscent of that of Henri Nouwen, that simply being with people in a caring way when there is no solution is valuable in itself.

In thoughts similar to those we have expressed, Taylor and Phillips so on to observe that people need each other not just for companionship and support in hard times but to fulfill their humanity, to become more fully human. The Dalai Lama has expressed that the purpose of good religion and spirituality is to produce a good human being, which is someone who is kind. The two authors also stress that an individuals’s capacity for kindness depends upon their health self-love. “Caring about others is what makes us fully human.”

There is a practice called the lovingkindness meditation. It begins by expressing the wish that I myself may be safe and well and happy and without enmity, or something similar. It then extends that wish to persons close to me, to those we occasionally meet, to those with whom we have difficult feelings, and finally to all beings.

Fear, anxiety, stress, busyness, and even wealth tend to work against compassion and kindness, as does a politics of cruelty Yet a recent article in Maclean’s magazine cites James Doty of Stanford University, who says: “Compassion is what is going to save our species. … The reality is that for our species to survive, we have to recognize that we are all one and everyone deserves the right to dignity, the right to food, the right to security, to shelter, and to health care.”

May each of you experience in the next while more kindness at the hands of others and may you also have more occasions to express kindness to others. And in this process may you experience and enjoy your own humanity on this earth.

Norman King, June 20, 2022

Healing as Move Toward Wholeness

As you know, I am fascinated with the etymology or roots of words, one of which is healing, the counterpart to wounding. In its origins the word heal means to make whole. Words with the same origin are health, hale, hail, holy. The terms, sound, safe, and uninjured appear also to be possible meanings of the term. The Latin equivalents are salus and salvus, which carry the similar meanings of safety, help, health, wellness, wholeness. The Greek word therapeia, from which comes our English word, therapy, means healing, in the sense of curing form disease, but also means to attend, do service, take care of.
To heal then means to move towards wholeness, to transform in some way the elements of brokenness or illness within us, within our relationships, within our society. Healing involves in some ways the overcoming of hurt, the healing of wounds.
Spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, makes a valuable distinction between care and cure as pathways to healing. “Care” he says,  has the same roots as the word “compassion.” They derive from the Celtic word “cara” which means to cry out with, to enter the suffering of another. The words “care and “compassion” are exactly the same. To care, he adds, is to be with people when and where they hurt. Out of that care, cure can be born,  If cure is not undergirded with care, he stresses, it can be more harmful than helpful.
Many people are so-called “cured,” Nouwen suggests, but hurt on a much deeper level because they have never been taken seriously by others. By paying attention only to cure, some persons may forget simply to be with people in a way which allows cure to take place. He later notes that the people who have been most meaningful to us are not the people with the solution but the people who stick it out with us even though there is no solution.
In an article on suffering, physician, Eric Cassell says that attention to physical illness alone can actually increase rather than decrease suffering. He understands suffering as any threat to the intactness or wholeness of the person. Along lines similar to Nouwen, he stresses the importance of compassionate attention to the patient as an individual, with their own life experiences, relationships, values, and stories. In short, healing means response to a person in their uniqueness and totality.
We suggested before that we follow a script or storyline in our lives of which may not even be aware. Any kind of loss or suffering can challenge or undermine that script, as it does in the play, Death of a Salesman and in the novel, Something Happened. We have suggested that it is essential to discover a script, a way of looking at life, that takes into account the whole complexity of our lives, its joys and sorrows, its successes and failures, yet at the same time maintains its ultimate sacred worth. In this sense, it is possible to have a meaningful life that includes suffering. It is possible to move towards healing and wholeness, even if parts of us are broken by illness, loss, or even betrayal. As Viktor Frankl insists, suffering is an inevitable part of life and if there is meaning in life there must be meaning in suffering.
What seems essential, on the personal level, is always to cling to a sense of our own worth, no matter what our life situation, and even when we cannot feel it.
We can perhaps most help and be helped by one another by listening with the ears of the heart, listening to ourselves and one another with openness and caring. In an interview in the On Being program, physician and author, Rachel Naomi Remen, stresses that listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. When we listen, we offer with our attention an opportunity for wholeness. Our listening creates sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person, places where they have been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and others. She adds further that the most important thing we bring to another person may be the silence in us, not a critical silence, but a silence that is a safe place, a place of acceptance of someone as they are. In the attentive listening with care that comes out of the silence of our soul, we can be a healing presence in one another’s lives.
The many arts can also be places of healing, In a healing conversation many years ago with my thesis director, the late Gregory Baum, he suggested that reading good novels, attending good plays, listening to good music can all be occasions of healing and growth for us. Musician and theologian, Miriam Therese Winter has stressed the importance of music for her journey toward wholeness. In her words, “Wholeness, healing, integration: that is what the inner journey is all about, and it happens when our inner and outer selves, when the world within us and the world around us, … and our own creativity merge and emerge as one. We experience this fleetingly through music. I feel it deeply, often through song. … Through music all life can be present to us, and in some sense, within us. …For some, music accompanies their inner journey; for others, it is the journey itself, the journey into ultimate meaning. When we embrace music as a healing presence, we are already home.”
In sum, we all experience woundedness in some form and we long for an elusive healing and wholeness. This journey is always incomplete. Yet the surest path to follow appears to be that of silence and solitude, of compassionate listening to ourselves and others, and of exposure to literature, music, and the other arts. And it is essential on that journey to come, with the help of one another, to a deeper awareness of our own sacredness, and that of others and of all that is, and to hold to and live from that sacredness.
May all the pain and sorrow of your life flow gradually into a healing and wholeness for yourself and for all those whose lives intersect in some way with your own.
Norman King, June 13, 2022

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Vulnerability as Openness to Grow

Last week we wrote about fear and anger, and how beneath them are the deeper realities of our longing for life, meaning, and relationship or belonging. We have used the somewhat similar image before of longing as a yearning to gather ourselves into our hands as something valuable, and to place ourselves somewhere worthwhile where we feel we belong.

The very crucial experience of longing reveals our sense of incompleteness. We can see this longing in the kitten wandering ever and ever further from its mother. We can see it in the child struggling to stand up, to walk, to talk. We can see it even in the desire in so many of us to travel, since if where we are, not only physically but in every other way, offered completeness, we would not move further.

This incompleteness itself uncovers an openness within us to move beyond our present state, whether in thought, feeling, decision, or activity. Fear, of course, can hold us back, for to be open is to be ready not only to go beyond the present situation, but to receive something or someone beyond ourselves. And what enters from beyond ourselves can be not only fulfilling but also wounding. We may attempt to build an impenetrable wall around ourselves. But it is never successful, and can leave an inner desolateness, like a plant without water.

Our longing, incompleteness, and openness, reveal our vulnerability. The very term “reveal” means to remove a veil from, to uncover something so that it can be seen. However much we may attempt to deny or evade it, we are in fact vulnerable. The word itself comes from the Latin vulnus or wound. To be vulnerable means to be able to be wounded or hurt.

The Hebrew Song of Songs contains an expression which resonates with me in its Latin wording: vulnerasti cor meum, literally, you have wounded my heart. I wrote something on this theme some years ago. I’ll repeat it here.

“These words suggest a wounding that is not an attempt to hurt, but the reaching of love into the inmost recesses of one’s being, a reaching past all the hopes and fears, all the joys and sorrows, all the barriers and sensitivities, to the place that is totally open, undefended, and in this sense liable to be hurt. It is the openness of me to you as I truly am. It is the place where I am in fact most vulnerable, most woundable. And yet it is an openness in trust to you, a trust that you will cherish me and not hurt me, that you will walk gently and caringly in this sacred place.”

Where trust is present and honoured, vulnerability is not threatening, but invites and is open to receive a caring that is not offset by our limitations. It allows another to enter place within that are usually hidden behind defensive walls. The story of Sleeping Beauty suggests that we all have hedges of thorns around us, as does the rose to protect the flower. Yet it is possible for someone to see the beauty behind the thorns, the beauty of who one is, and to awaken that. The fullest response to one another is the response not to what we do or say or have, but to who we are. This true self, as many have called it, is something that is only gradually and never completely discovered–often only after much stumbling and even hurt.

There are other situations where we may shy away from showing our vulnerability, for fear of exploitation, attack, or betrayal. These are situations in which trust is neither advisable nor possible. Trust is usually built gradually as mutual openness is offered and honoured. A trustworthy person is someone to whom we may reveal anything but to whom we need not do so.

Perhaps I might insert here again words written long ago.
“To be alive, to feel, to long, to care, is to hurt, whether the pain blows as a raging wind or a gentle breeze through my life. I may simply acknowledge the hurt that is there, perhaps even think of it as a wind that I allow to blow through my life, without resisting or struggling or running from it, letting it pass through me. As I do, I may also realize that if I hurt, I am a being, a someone, who is able to be hurt, able to be wounded, that I am vulnerable, woundable. I may then feel a need to set up defenses, barriers and fences against future wounds. Yet, while there are some instances when it may be advisable to do so, I may also come to realize that I cannot shut out all hurt unless I also shut out all life. If I try to exclude all hurt from my life, I will exclude all life from me and those I encounter. In the vain effort to avoid all hurt, I take life away from all those I encounter. I build walls of fear that becomes fortresses of hostility, and I barricade myself against receiving or giving love. I built a lonely and empty castle without windows or doors, without entry or exit. Instead of choosing the beauty of life in its preciousness, strength, and fragility, I reject life and inflict death on myself and all I meet.

“And if I receive in caring hands the hurt of another, being a safe place where another can enter with a trust that allays the hesitations of fear, then I too can entrust to a caring other my own hurt, with the expectation that I too will find a safe place. If I am honoured by the trusting of another who offers me their hurt as a precious gift, then I too may honour another by entrusting them with the wounds that make me weep with sorrow.”

May you all find situations in which trust makes vulnerability possible, in which you are valued for who you Are, and in which you find healing for the wounds you have felt.

Norman King, June 6, 2022

Beyond Fear and Hostility to Meaning and Relationship

This week I would like to consider the experiences of fear and anger and suggest possible ways to respond to them. Of course, experience also tells us that knowing a helpful response is much easier than living out that response.

Three prominent kinds of fears are the fear of hurt, the fear of making a mistake, and the fear of rejection. The fear of being hurt taps into our vulnerability. This is the recognition that we can be wounded and even killed, both physically and in other dimensions of out life. In the words of theologian Gregory Baum: “Life can be shattered. … It is possible to fall into situations where life is destroyed. It is possible to have one’s life shattered like a precious vase and despair over ever being able to rebuild it. … These deaths in the midst of life are what we are most afraid of.”

Corresponding to this fear, however, is our longing for life, to stay alive. It is the deep impulse within us to preserve our life. Yet it is not enough for us just to be alive. We wish also to live a life of meaning. We want to have a sense that our life is worth living, that we are of value and that our lives have purpose.

This longing flows into a second fear, the fear of making a mistake. We certainly are aware of mistakes we have made, both small and, perhaps. more far-reaching. Underlying this kind of fear is the fear that our whole life could be a mistake. This is essentially the fear of meaningless, the fear of a life in which we have no sense of identity or worth, belonging or purpose.

Corresponding to this fear, however, is once again the longing for meaning. Out of his concentration camp experiences, Viktor Frankl concluded that the longing for meaning is the deepest human drive. He saw that this meaning could be found by doing a deed, by experiencing a value such as love, or by a courageous response to inevitable suffering.

Behind the striving for meaning is an underlying trust in the meaningfulness of life. Historian of Religions, Wilfrid Cantwell Smith, and theologian, Karl Rahner, are among writers who have maintained that this basic trust is the foundation both of all authentic religion and of a meaningful life.

In this vein, writer, John Magee, maintains that it is not possible “on the one hand, to picture the world as mechanically determined, indifferent, or hostile to human values, utterly meaningless, devoid of living responsiveness, and, on the other hand, to cultivate inner freedom, passionate commitment to human values, order one’s life in a meaningful way, and live in open responsiveness to existence.” He adds that a person’s verbalized beliefs may not correspond to their vital convictions. It is possible “to believe in the bottom of your heart what you cannot express off the top of your head.”

A more humourous expression is found in the cartoon, Herman. He says that: “Maturity is the feeling that comes over you when you look back on your life and realize that you were wrong on just about everything.”

A third fear is the fear of rejection, something everyone as probably experienced slight or more serious forms during their lifetime. It can readily provoke a person to question their own value, their ability to love and be loved. The underlying and more expansive fear here is the fear that our life will be unshared. I recall a student once describing loneliness as the sense that there is no one with whom we can be ourself without defence or pretence.

The opposite is expressed in Sonnet XXX by Shakespeare.
“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste: …
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

The underlying reality here is the essentially relational and social nature of us as human beings. The underlying longing includes sharing our life in friendship, in some kind of worthwhile connection with one or more human beings, and in some form of social outreach. As noted before, the deepest energy in the universe, according to Teilhard de Chardin, is love energy. Einstein reaffirms this view in a letter to a daughter that we have quoted before. In this time of stress, psychologist Kimberley Wilson has written that kindness is important

We can also look at anger from a similar perspective. If someone strikes us, we tend instinctively to strike back, at least in self-defence. Sometimes we may wish to lash out in frustration. In a third occasion, we may become enraged at the injury, physical or mental, inflicted on another. As with fear, these reactions reflect an experienced threat to physical life, to the meaning of that life, and to the sharing of that life. Here too an immediate reaction may give way as well to a response from more deeply within that reflects our deeper longing for life, for meaning, and for relationship.

If we have an underlying conviction that these are possible or are in fact present, we tend to experience life with gratitude. Behind such gratitude is an equally underlying trust in the lasting meaning of our lives.

May you come more and more to experience a deep worth and purpose in your life, and may you be filled with a spirit of gratefulness that flows into a generous kindness to yourself and others.

Norman King, May 29, 2022

Life Unfolding from Within

I have been speaking lately of a way of interpreting our life experience as a gift and call to bring something to life, even out of the many deaths in the midst of life. I have also been reading a little each day from a few different books. One of them is by the late philosopher and spiritual writer, John O’Donohue. The book is called Anam Cara, a Gaelic term which means “soul friend.”

He writes that we should not force ourselves to change by beating our lives into a predetermined program, plan, or shape. “Rather,” he says, “we need to practice a new art of attention to the inner rhythm of our days and lives.” He adds that “the soul knows the geography of your destiny. … The signature of this unique journey is inscribed deeply in each soul.” These words recall my thought that it is important to trust the inner unfolding of our own self or life.

As we have said, the basic gift is our very self as sacred, and the basic call is to listen to, to heed, and to follow that sacredness in our self, in the deepest core of who we are. As we do so, we will discern the sacredness of others, of the world around us, and gradually of the universe itself and of all that is. The universe comes to be seen, not as a collection of object to dominate, but as a community of beings to reverence.

A fundamental step in this journey is to listen to and to become aware of our deepest inmost self.
In Markings, Dag Hammarskjöld, has expressed it in a very striking way: “The longest journey is the journey inward, of one who has chosen their destiny, who has started upon their quest for the source of their being.”

The reference to the geography of our destiny and to our journey inward recall the conviction of Joseph Campbell that the stories of all ages and cultures portray the journey of the hero or heroine. These, for him, are not so much about events in the outer world, but attempts to name the unfolding inner journey that each of us is called to make. In a similar way, we may recall that Lawren Harris, Group of Seven painter, writes that: “I try to get to the summit of my soul and paint from there, there where the universe sings.”

The question then arises as to how we get in touch with our inner core and its thrust or unfolding direction. We have spoken before of the path of silent solitude, which may involve attention to breathing, reflective reading, the lovingkindness meditation, and the like. Here I would like to mention the role of images and stories as guides to name that inner experience, to help us get in touch with who we are and the authentic direction of our life.

Myths and folk tales are full of imaginative ways that help us name our experience and come to awareness of the self behind the experience. In light of recent reflections, these are images that help to name the gift that we are and the gifts that are ours, and that call us to develop and share these gifts with one another.

In Hansel and Gretel, the children’s journey takes them through a dark forest. The forest stands for all the dark, unknown, chaotic, dangerous and destructive forces within and around the person. Our inner journey requires us to recognize and name the shadow side of our existence, yet not to be lost within it or see it as our identity. We are not our mistakes, weaknesses, or even our betrayals. But while naming this dark forest within, we need to see to the deeper, inextinguishable light within.

The birds who swallow the crumbs and prevent the children finding their way back along a previous path, express our deepest inspirations. These lead us to seek growth rather than cling to seeming securities of the past. The white bird who sings beautifully tells us that our need for beauty and meaning, is deeper than our need for mere survival.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus (in Latin, Ulysses) encounters all kinds of perils in his journey to home. The irresistible song of the Sirens reminds us to tune in to the beauty of life which is not overcome by its brevity. The Cyclops suggests, as do the giants in folk tales, that power divorced from caring is eventually self-destructive. Nearing the end of his journey, Odysseus next hears his experience named in a way that strikes to his soul in the song of the blind poet and singer. He realizes as well that home includes those with whom he is bound in a love relationship. In Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack both needs the harp and marriage to a princess to fulfill his life. Our inner journey, our inner geography, moves us to the beauty of the arts and the beauty of mutual love.

These examples simply try to illustrate that we may look at images in stories as ways to assist us in finding our way to our inner core, to discovering our sacred worth as a gift and uncovering the gifts we have, and hearing as well as the call to develop and share these gifts. This is not a matter of prying into ourselves from outside in, as if with a pair of psychological pliers. It is a question of allowing what is within, the unfolding direction of our inner self, to rise to the surface of our awareness. The stillness of silence in solitude allows this unfolding to occur. Yet so also do the images and stories that help name that inward soul for us.

Thomas Merton says that it is not a question of self-examination from without, looking in on ourselves from outside, so to speak. It is a matter of becoming present to our inmost self, deeper than all the surface needs and wants, deeper than the fears and hostilities and conflicts, deeper than all else within us. Merton calls it a point of light like a pure diamond, the secret beauty and depths of our hearts.

May you more and more come home to your inmost sacred self, as deeper and more than all the inner shadows of fear and hostility. And may you more and more follow its unfolding pattern which leads to gratitude and generosity, truth and beauty, justice and love.

Norman King, May 23, 2022

Life as Gift and Call: a Few More Thoughts

Last week, in light of the story of The Old Man and His Grandson, we suggested a way of interpreting our experience. One approach is to see each experience as a gift and call to bring something to life rather than put something to death, and to bring something to life, even out of the many deaths in the midst of life. I thought it might be interesting to expand a little on these thoughts.

In the story, it is the action of the child, with whatever degree of understanding it contained, that brought awareness to the couple.

We can mention a few examples. If we lose a friend, we cannot simply expect that the following day we will go out and form a new friend. As the story of Rapunzel intimates, the unfolding of friendship takes time and is built stand by strand by sharing what is within us. Yet it requires the same openness, vulnerability, and trust on the part of another. This reciprocity cannot be manipulated, but only received. We can be open to friendship, yet cannot produce it on our own. It is a gift. At the same time, with the gift of friendship, comes the task, demand, or call not to betray it. When someone honours us with the gift of who they are, it is important to respect that gift.

Similarly, if someone confides in us, tells us of their deepest anxieties and hopes, fears and dreams, they are entrusting us with the deepest part of themselves. This too is a gift. But with it comes the responsibility not to violate that trust. Or if someone close to us dies, it seems less of a gift than a burden, a sorrowful, lonely weight imposed upon us. But with this more shadowed “gift” comes the challenge gradually to recognize and deal with our grief, and the whole train of feelings and conflicts which it draws in its wake. Beneath the weight of sorrow may gradually emerge a sense of gratitude for this person and the life we have shared with them.

From this way of looking at things, every experience is a gift and call. This appears to be the pattern of human experience. We suggested further that this gift and call themselves have a pattern.

In the story, if the couple did not change their treatment of the grandfather, they would further hurt and sadden him, perhaps even kill his spirit. On the other hand, to respond to the challenge, as they did, would help to heal his wound, gladden his heart, and bring new life to his last days.

In the case of friendship, to betray a friend is to harm, diminish, or even destroy the friendship. To share more fully one’s inner life and outer life with the friend is to foster and develop that friendship, to forge a stronger and more lasting bond. Similarly, to betray a trust can be shattering to a person, whereas to maintain trust can help a person to grow. As I have put it elsewhere, if we become a safe place for another, or they for us, we offer a foundation to stand on and reach from. In a similar way, as we wrestle with the grief of a loss, we can become more aware of our various and even conflicting feelings, and gradually become more compassionate to ourselves and others, in a way that is life-giving.

The same underlying dynamic and pattern seems to be clear: either we bring something to life or put something to death in ourselves and others. We can either enliven or kill; create or destroy life. And this can refer to all the forms and dimensions of life, physical, emotional, mental, artistic, economic, political, international, etc. The basic gift and task concerns life and death: bringing to life or putting to death, even to the point of bringing something to life out of the many deaths in the midst of life.

We can recall again the words of Richard Rohr that suffering is either transformed or transmitted. Suffering is transmitted in destructive ways that may embody unfaced fear that flows into hostility. These readily seek to control, attack, and destroy others, and so are death-dealing. Transformed suffering, on the other hand, leads to kindness, compassion, and justice, which are life giving.

There may be a basic recognition that life itself is a gift, and that the understanding, love, and beauty that make life meaningful are gifts. This recognition shows forth in a life lived with an undertone of gratitude. I recall a humorous comment of a friend who was very difficult as a child yet had loving parents. His words were: “I’m grateful that my parents let me live.”

Gratitude has the same Latin roots as the words grateful, grace, gracious, gratuitous, which essentially mean thankfulness for what is freely given and is valuable. The corresponding word from the Greek, charism, has the same sense of gift, grace, beauty, and kindness, at first received, then shared..If life and its meaning are gifts, and felt as such, then there is an underlying tone of gratitude in our lives, which implies a recognition of gift. What is given rather than earned is then freely shared. The recognition of gift leads to generosity.

The opposite is resentment, the sense that the life we have received, and therefore we ourselves, are not of much value. This feeling of resentful insignificance leads to fear, including a fear that what is of little worth can only pretend to importance or look to things outside of self to give a sense of worth that is not felt from within. It further leads to a need to control, to dominate others and a world that are felt as threatening. It is readily expressed in hostility in feeling, thought, and action. This whole approach seems to be an attempt to prove a worth that is neither felt nor believed. It fails to recognize that our worth cannot be proven or achieved, but only recognized as a gift to be accepted and cherished, and recognized in some sense in all that is.

We have said before how a child will ask: “Where did I come from?” We added that a child is not looking for a technical answer, a lab report, but wants to be told a story in which they are given a sense of worth and belonging. The very question itself implies that we do “come from,” that we do not create ourselves but receive our life, which may later be felt as a gift or a burden. One former colleague suggested that if we think of ourselves as a self-made person, we need only look at our navel as a reality check.

As a child’s longing for a story of worth and belonging suggests, we have a tremendous yearning that the life we have received–and not fashioned–is a precious gift, a sacredness that extends to the unique life and self that is ours. In that case the underlying call is to recognize and accept that gift, to honour it in thought, word, activity, and life. It is a recognition of a corresponding call to honour that gift, not only in ourselves, but extending to all others and indeed to all that is, in appropriate ways.

May you come more and more to recognize your own sacred worth, to accept and cherish it, to be freed from the burden of proof, and to realize and live that worth in self and others. As a result may you more and more live a life permeated with a gratitude that flows into generosity, kindness, compassion, and justice.

Norman King
May 16, 2022

Listening from the Heart

We have been speaking of words, especially in images and stories. We have mentioned how these speak to our heart. They help us to get in touch with and to name our deepest experience. The corresponding insight is that human beings grow and develop by being listeners, listening from the heart. The Rule of St. Benedict, a from the early sixth century, begins with the invitation to listen with the ears of the heart.

Before we learn to speak, we learn to listen, and probably before we speak words, we sing them. We tend to think of a word as having an exact correspondence with a specific object or person. I believe it is truer to say that a word gathers a whole pattern of experience into a single sound. For the young child, “tree” is not simply that object out there, but is a whole cluster of colour and size and shape moved by the wind and heard as the wind rustles through its leaves. “Mother” is not that person I see in front of me, but a whole pattern of sights and sounds and smells and touches, and the feelings that they evoke.

It is a matter then of tuning in to a whole variety of experiences, discerning or separating a cluster of these into a pattern, and finding a sound that expresses that pattern. In turn the words we learn shape our very experience.

Psychologist, Benedictine monk, and Zen Buddhist master, David Steindl-Rast, draws on the roots of the words obedience and absurdity to develop the understanding of listening. The word “obedience” in its Latin origin does not mean to follow blindly. Rather it means to listen fully, to tune in to the meaning of life in each present moment. “Absurdity,” also in its Latin roots means to be totally deaf, to miss the meaning of our life.

Here we have a sense of listening as a tuning in. To listen to another in this sense is not merely to be quiet until they finish speaking, but to be truly present to that person, to be aware of the person beneath the words, and to respond appropriately, I have often said before that we cannot talk another person into something, but we can listen them into their own truth.
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Listening specialist Alfred Tomatis has distinguished between hearing and listening. Hearing simply happens in that the sound around us enters our ears without any attention or intention. Listening only takes place when we focus our mind and heart on the music that is playing or the person who is speaking, when we are in fact present to and participate in the meaningful sounds we encounter. Hearing is the passive reception of sound, while listening is the active participation in what we hear. It is possible to have good hearing, but poor listening.

Genuine dialogue, whether in personal conversation, classroom discussion, or interfaith communication, involves an honest openness, a real listening and tuning in to what is heard and to the person who is speaking. According to Leonard Swidler, who has engaged extensively in dialogue and has written about it, the purpose of dialogue is to grow, to be open to be changed by what we hear and to allow it to influence how we live.

Put a little differently, we listen truly only if we are open to be changed by what we hear. It is far more than simply waiting until another stops talking so that we can make our own predetermined point. As I like to say, we are transformed by what we let affect us deeply. We are shaped by the experiences that we let in to our heart. That is why a friend once closed their eyes before a violent movie scene, not wanting to let that image work on their imagination.

Transformation occurs when the outside experience or influence meets with our openness from the heart, whether the kindness of a friend, the tragedy of a loss, or really anything whatever. In the story of Narcissus, he runs from himself until he finds a reflection of himself as lovable, as someone of worth. Then he does not need to run any more. In the story of Echo, she loses her own voice and fades away as a result. We lose who we are unless we are in touch with, in tune with our own inmost voice. Real growth seems to occur, then, when inner openness and outer events blend.

Listening to our deepest self the voice of who we truly are and of our deepest longing seems to be a gradual process. We can be distracted by more surface needs and wants. We can fail to discern the difference between what we feel like on the surface and what we really long for from our centre. In the story of Rapunzel, the greed of one parent and the fear of the other lead to the loss of the child. This is the loss of the future, the loss of one’s real self. In the same story, it is in her solitude that the young woman discovers her own voice and its beauty, and her own beauty. That beauty is expressed in her singing which reaches out to another, from the core of one person to the core of another.

In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm says in a similar vein, that what is talked about is less important than whether we experience ourselves and communicate from the centre of our existence. What is essential, in this sense, is to listen with the ears of the heart, and to speak and sing from that core.

In sum, we are exposed to many voices, both from within and without. The challenge is both to decide who or what to listen to from the heart. The challenge also is to listen as well, to tune in, to our own deepest voice, the voice of who we truly are and who we are becoming.

May you come more and more to discover and listen to your own deepest voice, your own deepest self. And may you communicate from there. And may you find fulfillment within yourself self and within your connection with others.

Norman King, April 25, 2022