Experience as Gift and Call to Life-Giving

Last week, I suggested that our inmost longing for truth and beauty, goodness and love, is best grounded in an underlying sense of gratitude. This is gratitude for the gift of self, of others, and for life itself, all of which have an enduring sacred worth.

We have spoken before of the both/and, the bitter/sweet of life, and suggested that life is a wondrous gift, even though it sometimes hurts. I recently heard a podcast in which a person sustained a sense of that gratefulness even though his son had died because of a medical mistake. To have had his son for 21 years was a gift that outweighed his premature death. I also had a younger brother who died at 26 owing to a heart defect incurred at birth. The wrenching sadness of his death remains. Yet the lasting impact of who he was and its shaping of my thinking and attitudes is an invaluable gift. Again, in Leonard Cohen’s famous words: There is a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in.

From this perspective, I developed a model for interpreting experience, related to the Grimm Brothers story, The Old Man and His Grandson. The four-year-old child in the story sees how his parents treat his grandfather for spilling some of his food, and send him from the table to eat behind the stove. The child makes them see the hurtful effect of their treatment. As a result, the young couple are moved from seeing the grandfather as a nuisance to be reluctantly tolerated, to recognizing him as a valuable person to be cherished. As a result of seeing him in a new way, they began to treat him differently. A new way of seeing was given to them and a new way of acting was called from them. This experience–and I would suggest–every experience involves a gift and call.

The story suggests a further dimension to every experience. If they had continued to treat him dismissively, they would have killed something of his spirit. By welcoming him positively, they would have enriched his final days. In effect, the gift and call concerns the choice of either bringing something to life or putting something to death in ourselves or others. An obvious sense of bringing to life is to procreate and love a child. An equally apparent sense of putting to death is to abuse, reject or neglect a child. A still more profound possibility is to bring that suffering child to life, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, artistically, spiritually, or in any way.

In this light we may approach every experience–although certainly the more crucial or deeper ones–as involving the gift and task to bring something to life, even out of the many deaths in the midst of life. It is to let the light enter all the cracks in life.

I would suggest further that every story contains a certain way of looking at life, yet may be open to different interpretations. In his retelling of the story of Pandora, for example, the ancient Greek poet, Hesiod, appears to blame women for all the evils of the world. In his version, Pandora is given a jar and told not to open it until her wedding day. When she opens it beforehand, she releases all the ills, and shuts it in time only to keep hope inside.

From a different perspective, however, the name Pandora means all the gifts or the gift of everything. In this context, it can express all that is given with human life both pleasant and painful, the bitter and the sweet. It can also suggest that, while life contains both positive and negative elements, it remains a gift, and can be received with gratitude. The same thought is expressed that life can be lived with hope. There is also the undertone of humour, in the sense that, when the injunction is given not to open the jar immediately, we know that it will be opened. Humour contains a sense of hope if it has the form of being able to laugh gently at oneself (rather than derisively at others).

This ambiguity of life leaves us with a question as to how we interpret it–as a glass half full or half empty. Expressed differently, the question becomes what story we tell around any experience. The philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, told how, as we was travelling by train to deliver a lecture, he discovered that his wife had forgotten to include the talk in his brief case. His first reaction was not annoyance or concern, but a sense of sadness that she would feel badly about it. At this level of growth, his instinctive response was compassion.

Sometimes an event that is initially viewed one way comes to be seen differently at a later date. I am not sure how I responded to my experience at the age six of being hit by a truck. I do recall my response after I was released from the hospital and allowed to get out of bed after a few days at home. I took a few steps and fell over. I remember an acute sense of anxiety at being unable to walk right away. Years later, as I looked back on this experience, I realized that I had a profound experience both of the precariousness and the preciousness of life. That understanding was profoundly reinforced by the friendship with my younger brother, who I mentioned above,was born with a chronic heart condition that led to his death at the age of 26.

The challenge here, as spoken of often before, is to uncover and then possibly change the script which we have inherited, grown up with, or even forged on our own. One script I would suggest–easier in theory than practice–is the precious worth of life as a sacred gift and call to bring something to life within us and around us, even out of the many deaths in the midst of life. It is the script of compassion and generosity. It is a story of an unfolding of life that involves insight, hope, and love. The story of Pandora reinforces that life is a valuable gift even though it involves pain.

May you discover a script, a life story that unveils your own worth and that of others; and may it become a life-giving tale of wisdom and compassion.

Norman King, June 11, 2023

The Still Small Voice

Last week, I referred to Erich Fromm’s conviction that people should experience themselves from the centre of their existence. Only then can they communicate with one another from that centre. Such communication in depth is, for him, the essence of love. It may be interesting to explore the connection between being present to ourselves and being present to one another. In a noisy and scattered age, often swallowed up in externals, noise, and busyness, this is quite a challenge.
Fromm emphasizes that the ability to be alone with oneself is the condition for the ability to love–that is, to relate meaningfully to others. He cites meditation as one practice that fosters this presence to self. He goes on to say that a person must be concentrated on everything they do, “in listening to music, in reading a book, in talking to a person, in seeing a view.” If a person is fully present, whatever they are doing takes on  a new dimension of reality.
This notion of being present to ourselves and present to our immediate situation, and to others with whom we are at the moment, is a recurring theme, in many traditions. It is often expressed as living fully in the present.
I like the image of tuning in to our deepest inner voice. We hear many voices, as well as a great deal of chatter, within us. We do hear voices both of affirmation and of put-down. It can be helpful to try to name these voices, to discover who is the speaker. Often the speaker of negative voices within ourselves may come from a harsh voice heard in childhood. The more positive voices may come from those who have been kind to us. Beneath all of these is our own voice, which may take time to tune into.
This inner voice is often characterized as a still small voice. This expression indicates that it is a quiet voice. It can easily be drowned out by louder voices. It is best heard in stillness. These would be times without agitation or much motion or emotion. They would be times of quiet, of silence. I believe that these are the times when we can hear that inner true voice of ourselves.
I may have mentioned before my experience of a spontaneous writing session, in which emerged for me the image of a child behind walls. The following morning, on awakening, I had the vivid sense that I needed to speak to that child. I asked, “Who are you?” I was astounded to hear what came immediately to mind. “You cannot find out all at once. You must visit me often, and as you do, the walls will gradually come down and you will learn to speak with my voice and love with my heart.”
That image had emerged from a kind of poem to my younger brother, Mike, who had died many years earlier from a chronic heart condition. It had ended with the words: “Perhaps your death and my sorrow/ and your friendship and mine/ and all the friendships and sorrows since that time/ will lead a path behind the wall/ and free the child within.”
The walls are perhaps the hurts, and fears, and hostilities, and the feelings connected with them that surround our core self. If we live within those walls, we will be forever homeless, absent from our true self. In silent solitude, in stillness, we may allow ourselves to feel all our feelings, and to name them as truthfully as possible. Yet we may sense beneath and behind these walls is our inner self, the core of sacredness. When I reflected a little further on the image of the child behind the walls, it struck me that the voice of that child is the voice of our inmost self, and precisely of that self as it emerges from the universe, and whatever energy is behind and within the universe.
I once heard a talk by David Steindl-Rast who is at once a psychologist, a Benedictine monk, and a Zen master. He looked at the Latin roots of two words, “obedience” and”absurdity.” In its roots, obedience does not mean to do what one is told. It means to listen fully, to listen with our whole being and to listen from our heart, our core. It means tuning in to the meaning of each given moment. Absurdity, in its root sense, means to be totally deaf, to fail to find the meaning of our life at this moment. It is to experience life as meaningless.
Steindl-Rast further stresses the importance of silence. Silence, he says, creates space around things, persons, and events. It allows us to consider them gratefully, one by one, in their uniqueness.
Here again, we see the inseparability of listening to ourselves and listening to others. Listening to all our own feelings and naming them truthfully, without being trapped by them or seeing our identity in them, allows us to experience our sacred and worthy core beneath them. So also listening to others involves us to tune in to their inner sacred core, to listen to the person beneath the words and body language. It is a listening that lets go of our agendas, our preset responses. It is the attempt to be totally present, beyond the baggage or needs and threats. As St. Benedict expressed it, it is listening with the ears of the heart.
May you learn to listen to your own inmost sacred and worthy core, and tune in to that of others. May you learn more and more to respond from that inmost place, even when you are in opposition to yourself or others. May you uncover and dwell in your own inner home, and also be a home for others.
Norman King, May 8, 2023.

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Speaking from the Heart

Last week, I wrote about listening from the heart. It has the threefold sense of tuning into our own inmost core, to one another, and to the sound of the universe. The counterpart to listening from the heart is speaking from the heart. It means speaking as truly and deeply as possible. It is possible only to the extent that it is preceded by listening from the heart. To speak superficially or falsely is to speak off the top of one’s head or out of the side of one’s mouth.
The inability to communicate emotionally, and so to be unable to love, is reflected in the sixties song by Simon and Garfunkel, The Sound of Silence. It sings of people talking without speaking, and hearing without listening. Physician Gabor Maté speaks of a toxic culture and of how even well-meaning people are pushed to sacrifice their authenticity for what is socially acceptable, and to push others to do the same. He speaks of compassionately listening to and trusting our own heart as a path to refinding our authenticity.
I have often referred to Erich Fromm. He writes: “Love is possible only if two persons communicate with each other from the centre of their existence, hence if each one of them experiences himself or herself from the centre of their existence. … Love, experienced thus, is a constant challenge; it is not a resting place, but a moving, growing, working together; even whether there is harmony or conflict, joy or sadness, is secondary to the fundamental fact that two people experience themselves from the essence of their existence, that they are one with each other by being one with themselves, rather than by fleeing from themselves.”
What these comments suggest is that we can only speak from the heart if we are in touch with our heart, with the core of centre of our authentic self. This is what Thomas Merton calls our true self as distinct from our false self. The false self for him is the self that lives only on the surface of life, the self that sees itself only in competitive opposition to others, and the self that identifies with the ideological image portrayed by society.  A challenge of a lifetime is to come into touch with our true or authentic self, beneath all else, and let that sacred self, as much as possible, flow in to our words, our actions, our lives. Perhaps this is most basically seen as a flow of wisdom and compassion, a flowing from a listening heart.
We have in English the expression: “Don’t breathe a word.” It is an implicit recognition that speaking is a form of breathing. In many languages the words, breath, wind, and spirit are the same. It suggests that where we breathe from and where we speak from are similar. Words, spoken or sung, can move us only if they come from deeply within, from the heart, from the guts, rather than the surface. The Hebrew prophet, Isaiah once spoke of people who honour the divine with their lips, but whose hearts are far away. The king in Hamlet says similarly “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
Certainly, from one perspective, words are most simply vibrations or sounds in the air, flowing on the outward movement of breath. Yet, they may have quite a different impact if they are sung rather than spoken, if they come from our deepest silence rather than our surface noise, or if they express something of who we are rather than the information we possess.
A young student once told me of her experience of working with people who were unable to walk, to feed themselves, or to speak. But nonetheless, she sensed a profound contact simply through the eyes. This example gives a sense of the tremendous energy that may be present and embodied in some way when we communicate with one another. When we say goodbye to someone who is leaving for a time or who is dying, we want our words to contain us, to hold all our feelings, so that we can give them to another. It is as if we took our whole self and wrapped it up in words, as we would wrap a gift, and offered it to another. (We may of course do the same with our hostility.) We may perhaps think of words in terms of the underlying energy that flows into and through them.
That energy will be different depending on where it originates within us. If our words are not “off the cuff,” but well up from the deepest level of our being, we may be said to be speaking from our heart, from the centre of our existence. They may be said to come from that place in us where we flow in our uniqueness from the life process and even from the universe.
Lawren Harris, the Canadian “Group of Seven” painter, spoke of painting, not the branch of a tree, but the urge to its growth. By this I think that he meant that he tries to convey a living reality, the life energy that flows through the tree, not merely an inanimate object. Harris also wrote, “I try to get to the summit of my soul and paint from there, there where the universe sings.”
Perhaps our deepest and truest words are those that echo the song of the universe, a truth that sings through us but is not our own. Perhaps this truth energy that flows through all that is–but so often fails to reach into and through our words and actions–is best described as compassion, a respectful furthering of life, even at its most vulnerable. In this sense, each of us is a unique word, sung out of the immense Silence. Our life task could then be described as one of hearing, respecting, and responding to the unique and sacred word that is each of us.
May you tune into the deepest truth and value of who you are and may that truth flow into your life in words and melodies of compassion.
Norman King, December 27, 2022

Trust in Self, Others, Life

Last week I spoke about a safe place within ourselves or with another. Such a safe place seems to be essential if we are to be open and vulnerable. A key component in this process is trust–trust in ourselves, in at least some others, and in life itself.

We need to be able to trust that what is deepest within us is not negative or destructive, but positive, something good and sacred. We can admit difficulties only if they are not the last word on us. If we sense that who is are is wrong or totally flawed, we will run frightened from ourselves or, as Richard Rohr says, inflict or transmit our pain to others. We can trust ourselves only if we feel that our core identity is positive; only if any negativity is outside our core identity. That is true as well if we do not see our identity in what we own (reducing us to human havings); or in what we do (reducing us to our occupation or profession, in effect, to human doings). These can then be lost, without losing the sacred core of who we are, a unique human being.

If we see our identity in who we are, and have a sense of the essential sacred worth of who we are–or at least are moving in that direction–we can come to trust what is deepest within us. As I like to put it, we can come to trust the unfolding process of life within us. Our life is in fact not something static but is an ongoing process, an unfolding from within. I have also mentioned though that, although our core self is sacred, around that core self are what may be called walls of hurt, fear, and hostility. While the sacred core self is our true home, we can sometimes live within the walls of hurt, fear, or hostility. We then, so to speak, act as a sniper to others from these alienating places.

The process of uncovering and getting in touch with that core self, and living out of a sense of our own and others sacred worth is a slow process. As Dag Hammarskjold’s has written in Markings: “The longest journey is the journey inwards to the core of one’s being.” The process has, I believe, three interrelated components: creative solitude, personal friendship, and social outreach.

To the extent that we come to trust ourselves and our own inmost script, we become free from the weight of inherited scripts, and social and cultural images. At the same time, we become free from a distrust of self that leads us to turn to outside authority for our marching orders. Meaningful language is then understood as words that name our experience, It is no longer orders barked from outside. We look to literature, music, painting, and all the arts to help us uncover who we are rather than telling us what to do.

In a similar way, learning to trust another, is to discover someone with whom we can unveil ourselves without the threat of rejection or put down. Rather, it would be someone trustworthy, who at once tunes into and accepts who we are, beneath our hurts, fears, or hostilities. At the same time, it is someone who invites us and even challenges us to become who we can be, who helps us uncover our own authentic script and assists in its unfolding. The important counterpart is for ourselves to become a trustworthy person, a person who is a safe place for another. Once again, of course, there is the realization that this is not an easy process, that it involves time and effort, and perhaps some setbacks.

Authoritarian persons and regimes attempt to hook into and prey upon our fears, anxieties, insecurities, and hostilities. They seek to control us and make us subservient by inculcating more fear and guilt in us, which readily flow into hostility, usually toward stereotyped groups. They teach mistrust of what is within so that we will turn outward to them.

At the same time, we need not look upon our own sacred core as a dead end, so to speak, but as the point which open up to and flows from the universe and whatever is most within and behind the universe. Thomas Merton writes: “At the centre of our being is … a point of pure truth. … [It] is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.”

Years ago, I read a science fiction story by Theodore L. Thomas, called The Far Look, published in 1956. It tells of two men on a space station and their life-threatening experiences. Upon returning to earth, their minds are transformed by a kind of seeing from deep inside. They uncover a wisdom that is cleansed of the baggage of the past and become “men of untrammeled mind.”

A similar reflection is found in two astronauts, Ron Garan and Yuri Gagarin. “The orbital view gives you a whole new perspective. You realize that each and everyone of us are interconnected and in this together. When you see the planet from space, it puts the common challenges faced by all humans into perspective.” (Garan) “Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People let us preseerve and increase this beauty, not destroy it.”(Gagarin)

We may also recall Albert Einstein’s letter to his daughter. “There is an extremely powerful force that, so far, science has not found a formal explanation to. It is a force that includes and governs all others, and is even behind any phenomenon operating in the universe and has not yet been identified by us. This universal force is LOVE. … This force explains everything and gives meaning to life. This is the variable that we have ignored for too long, maybe because we are afraid of love because it is the only energy in the universe that man has not learned to drive at will. … If we want our species to survive, if we are to find meaning in life, if we want to save the world and every sentient being that inhabits it, love is the one and only answer.”

More concretely, these authors are suggesting that this universe (in which everything is connected), is trustworthy. Behind these assertions, we witness the unfolding of the universe, which results in the stars. The stars in turn contain all the elements found in the human body, such that we are, literally, stardust. We also see the bonding of mammals to their offspring, the development of language, and the extended care needed by the prolonged childhood of humans. All these are an intimation that the thrust of the universe, its inner energy, impels in the direction of wisdom and love, of understanding and compassion.

Theologian, Karl Rahner, in speaking of childhood, says that the young child has to trust, because he or she is dependent for survival upon those charged with their care. He adds that the mature childhood of the adult is a basic trust in the meaningfulness of life, despite the conflicts within and threats from without that push us to close ourselves. “I can either reject myself in radical protest” he writes, “or accept myself in the total and concrete reality of life, even though … it remains full of pain and obscurity. However, I can accept it in hope.” Theological writer, John Magee insists that only a vision of life as ultimately meaningful and supportive of the human endeavour, coupled with a living trust in its foundation, source, and goal, can give rise to a maturity of personhood and life.

In sum, the path to a meaningful life unfolds in trust in the unfolding process of life from within our sacred self, in the experience of trustworthy caring from another human being, and in the underlying trust that life itself impels toward a healing and fulfilling wisdom and compassion.

May you come more and more to uncover and live from your inmost sacred self. May your life contain the caring presence of trustworthy others, and may you experience the ultimate trustworthiness of the universe itself. May you, as a result, become a more and more a trustworthy and caring person.

Norman King, December 12, 2022

The Energy of Presence

We have been speaking of words, especially in images and stories, that may speak to our heart. And we have spoken of listening from the heart. We referred to Erich Fromm who insists, in The Art of Loving, that the content of our listening and speaking is less important than its source. What counts most is not what we listen to or say, but where we listen and speak from. It makes a difference whether it comes from our heart or core or inmost centre, or whether it comes from our surface or fear or hostility.

To listen or speak from the heart, we must be there. We must be present to ourselves and to others. Behind such presence is a different kind of energy. I recall once seeing a play in Detroit called Inherit the Wind in which a key character was attorney, Clarence Darrow. I was sitting close to the stage within a few feet of the actor who played this role. In one scene, he spoke with such intensity that his face became a bright red. What most struck me was not so much the words that he spoke but the presence and energy behind those words. I have no recollection of the words themselves, but have never forgotten the intense presence behind and within them.

I have spoken before of the sense that there is an extensive homelessness in our society, not simply in the absence for so many of a clean, affordable, safe place to stay, which is a profound human need. Rather, there is also a sense in which people are not at home to themselves. Many of us skate around on the surface of our lives, either unaware, or even uncomfortable and afraid, of what is within us. Or we measure the success of our lives in the clutter of things with which we surround ourselves.

Behind this flight from self may well lie a fear that this self is either of little or no value or even is wrong. Our whole thrust in these reflections has been to underline the sacred worth of each and every human being. And we have said that this sense of worth may be discovered though silence, friendship, and social outreach.

Looked at through certain eyes, I have seen this message repeated in folk tales and mythologies, and many stories, often expressed in a longing for worth that is felt more as a question than an answer. Folk tales like Sleeping Beauty recognize that this worth may be surrounded by hedges of thorns and need to be awakened. This is also an awakening to who we are rather than what we do.

Stories like Snow White and Hansel and Gretel suggest that it is found at the other side of a dark forest. That forest stands for all the unknown, chaotic, dangerous and destructive forces within us and around us. In other words, our journey to be present to and at home to ourselves will pass through these forces, but with the realization that they our not the core or essence of who we are. Our sacred worth is deeper than and not overcome by them. It is hidden in the house of the witch that the children, Hansel and Gretel discover the precious jewels.

It is in the silent waters of self-awareness that Narcissus discovers who he is. He comes to an awareness that he is worthy of love and no longer needs to flee from himself. The young woman, Psyche (in Eros and Psyche), after the cocoon of her underworld journey, is able to soar like a butterfly. It is likewise after her time in the isolation of the tower that Rapunzel is able to sing beautifully. Her song expresses who she really is and also enables her to reach out beyond herself. The reference to the strand of silk and the growth of flowing hair both bring out that it is out of our own substance that we give access to ourselves freely. In other words we must both be in touch with ourselves and communicate from the deepest substance of our being.

The fact that in Rapunzel, her expression comes in the beauty of song indicates at once the beauty of the soul and the energy that comes from it. When we are present to ourselves, we can be present to our expression, whether in word or music or even in our very face. People like Louis Armstrong or Leonard Cohen reach us because they sing from their soul, they are fully present in their songs.

I once had a colleague, who studied extensively the philosopher scientist, Teilhard de Chardin. I asked him what, for Teilhard was the underlying energy within and behind the universe. He replied immediately that it was love energy. His response reminds me of the words of the Group of Seven painter, Lawren Harris who affirms that he tries to get to the summit of his soul and paint from there, there where the universe sings. He also adds that the artist does not pain the branch of a tree but the urge to its growth–in other words, he paints the life energy that is present and flows into that branch.

All these thoughts suggest that the deepest energy within us is that of love, and we tap into and connect with that energy when we are fully at home to and present to ourselves. We are then able to express and embody that energy in our words, our stories, our songs, and our lives. Of course in the process of coming home to ourselves, we will encounter and contend with our insecurities, fears and hostilities. Yet we may come to do so with an underlying sense of hope and in a trust in the process of life unfolding within ourselves

May you more and more be in touch with and at home to your core self. And may you more and more come to experience and express its beauty with the song of your life.

Norman King, May 02, 2022

Compassion for Self and Others

There was a CBC program quite a few years ago, in the Ideas series, that was called The World of the Child. One of the many speakers was educator, John Holt. His comments still resonate with me.
I think the social virtues are overflowing, they are surplus. People have enough kindness for others when they have              enough kindness for themselves–otherwise not. … My very strong feeling is that if children are allowed a growing up            which enables them to become adults with a strong sense of their own dignity and competence and worth, they will              extend these feelings to include other people.

The key thought here, one that strikes me both as profoundly true and equally difficult to reaize, is that kindness to oneself is a precondition for kindness to others and that a sense of our own worth is a precondition for a sense of the worth of others.

We perhaps think more readily of kindness and compassion as something directed towards others more than, and even rather than, towards ourselves. It seems to Holt that kindness towards others is an overflow from kindness to ourselves or else it is absent. I agree and would like to try explain it by speaking first of compassion as a caring space around the pain of another–and ourselves, and seeing the alternative as a wall around ourselves behind which we hide and from which we attack others as a kind of sniper.

When someone brings their pain to us (or vice versa), the best we can offer is not advice, answers, or a defensive wall, but a caring space, a safe place, a place of compassion, a space that is empty, so to speak, rather than filled with our own “clutter.” This largely silent and listening presence allows another to be where and how they are, without defence or pretence. If our own compassion has been stretched far enough by the joy and sorrow of our life, then we can, in some limited way, offer a space of compassion around the pain of another, that makes real to them, that there is something vaster than their suffering, and that this sorrow need not take away all their meaning and hope, even though it still may feel that way.

One personal memory that comes to mind here, from a slightly different angle, is the two and a half weeks, I was able to spend with my mother, at the end of her life. She found very difficult the time between when she had concluded her life, so to speak, and when she actually died. there was nothing I could “do,” except to “be” there, which I sensed was better than not being there. Later it struck me that the basic gift we have to offer one another is precisely our presence (which comes from the Latin words “being-there”), and that any gifts, skills, and actions do not replace but only build on that presence.

But to have that uncluttered but caring space to offer, we need to become free of the need to defend or justify ourselves or to attack someone perceived as a threat. This is something most of us can probably manage only on occasion We may perhaps best consider this as a direction to move towards, a place at which we may never fully or consistently arrive. To the extent that we feel insecure or threatened, or in a situation that appears in some sense dangerous, we need to build protective walls around ourselves. These walls become ever higher as we feel the need to hide behind them. They readily become a fortress from which to attack others. And they seem in the end to become a prison that entraps us.

The only way out, it seems, is to have a sense that our sacred worth is something that goes with who we are and not with what we achieve or possess, all of which can be lost in an instant. As Holt suggests, it may well require that someone see the sacred worth in us and treat us accordingly, especially as children, before we can come to see and feel it in ourselves. This is not to deny that there are situations in which trust and openness are not possible or advisable. It is to say that they are possible only when we are moving towards a sense of our own worth as intrinsic, as going with our very existence, as something we are, and so as something that we cannot lose but only lose sight of, or fail to realize in a way that is deeply felt.

To the extent that we do have that sense of sacred worth, we are able–in appropriate situations–to be without walls of defence or offence, and to have an empty space around us, a caring space, a home space, where others can enter and remain and leave, without being imprisoned or rejected but accepted.

Henri Nouwen, a writer who speaks of personal growth as rooted in sacred worth notes that the Greek word for compassion means to feel in your guts, and the Hebrew word means to feel in your womb. In both cases, it means to sense in your deepest centre. To be compassionate to another is to feel something of their pain in our own guts, which implies an openness to let it enter safely and without barriers.

Other writers, such as Sharon Salzberg and Wayne Muller, stress repeatedly as we noted last week that there is some measure of suffering in every human life, that life sometimes just hurts. And so all of us need some compassion, including compassion for ourselves. To achieve such compassion for ourselves and gradually extending beyond ourselves to others can be a slow and difficult process. The usual practices of reflective reading or podcasts, moderate exercise, healthy diet, conversations with friends, some outreach activity and the like, can be helpful.

Perhaps also helpful is the recognition that life sometimes hurts and that to feel sad or hurt or other painful feelings, are part of life, that they are not something to blame ourselves for, and do not detract from our sacred worth. A nineteenth century cleric, John Vianney, commented that suffering passes but having suffering does not. I think his thought is echoed in the Oedipus plays and the writings of Viktor Frankl, that these sorrows can be a source of inner strength and wisdom. It seems, however, that this is a process that occurs only over a period of time, and perhaps with the support of intelligently caring others. To recall again favourite words from Henri Nouwen: the true friend is not the person with the answers, but the one who sticks it out with you when there are no answers.

May each of you discover more and more a profound and enduring compassion for yourselves, and one that gradually radiates to all who come within the circle of your light.

October 24, 2021

Sacredness beyond Sorrow

In my thoughts over the past while a few themes have emerged. The most basic and underlying strand running through all I have listened to and read is that there is a sacredness, a value or worth to each and every human being and to all that is, living and non-living. This theme has also been the current that runs through my whole life and work. Yet it has been as much, if not more, something to struggle towards rather than a conviction readily seen and lived from.
In reflecting on this matter, among many other things, some New Testament stories come to mind–the baptism and transfiguration of Jesus, and the parables of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan. So too do the writings of Henri Nouwen and the podcasts I have been listening to. The story of Narcissus from Greek mythology and the story of Sleeping Beauty from Western folk tales also resonate.
In all these thoughts and stories, there is this same underlying theme of the basic sacredness, value, and worth of the person, and extending to all of creation. At the same time, it is recognized as something always there, but seen only with a great deal of struggle, and discovered on the other side of whatever pain, sorrow, or suffering has become part of our life. The greatest struggle and the greatest pain come not only from events inflicted from without or limitations arising from within, but their impact that feeds what is already present within us–the fear that we of no worth, that there is something radically wrong with us, that we are unlovable. Beneath all their layers, all the oral and written traditions affirm both this underlying truth of our sacred worth and of the struggle involved in recognizing that truth.
Henri Nouwen puts it in these words: “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” This again is the heart of the story of the baptism of Jesus, which calls us to tune into the truest and deepest voice within us, the voice that calls us a beloved daughter or son, the voice of our sacredness. It is the core of the transfiguration story which says that if we see to the heart of any of us, we will discover a radiant beauty. If we did so, says Thomas Merton, all the darkness and cruelty of life would disappear..
The Good Shepherd psalm tells us: “ Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me. … and I will dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” The first letter of John states that “perfect love casts out fear.” What is deepest and truest in life is a life-affirming, a life-generating presence or force that makes for life, growth, meaning, forgiveness, healing, and renewal, that is more than, yet perhaps most fully realized on the other side of pain and fear. To live within and from this “house” is to be at home to ourselves and our sacredness and so able to be at home to others as well.  The story of the healing of the paralytic suggests that to experience forgiveness, is to realize that our sacredness is deeper than any brokenness and wrongness. We are then free from the paralysis of fearing that we are no good and are able to get up and walk again.
Very briefly, the story of Narcissus suggests that we will run from love and intimacy and inflict hurt on others until we come to an image of ourselves as lovable. This is an experience of death and rebirth. The story of Sleeping Beauty also indicates that sometimes we do have hedges of thorns around us to ward off any possible hurt. Yet this self-enclosing wall puts us into a sleep-like state of unawareness. As in the story of the prodigal son, sometimes it takes another to awaken us–or perhaps listen us–into the truth of our own sacredness.
Perhaps in future reflections, we can look a little more intensely into some of these stories. We may conclude this week with restating the underlying theme of the sacred worth of each of us, to which we only slowly awaken after some struggle and sorrow. And perhaps the challenge for us is to help one another awaken to this truth.  And perhaps we do so, certainly by social struggle according to our gifts, but also by listening to one another’s stories and to the storyteller, and discovering together that each of us has a sacred story and that we are each a sacred storyteller.
Norman King