Become What Your Country to Be

A story told by Anthony deMello in his book, Awareness:

“A Jesuit once wrote to Father Arrupe, his superior general, asking him about the relative value of communism, socialism, and capitalism. Father Arrupe gave him a lovely reply. He said, ‘A system is about as good or bad as the people who use it.’ People with golden hearts would make capitalism or communism or socialism work beautifully.”

DeMello goes on to say, “Don’t ask the world to change-you change first.” My philosophy in a nutshell. I would expand on his statement by saying that I am part of a community and one person changing is a start of the whole community changing. This is, by the way, what a prophet does.

In our current political situation,  this is a hard concept to get let alone live. I have to ask myself, “What do I want my country to be?” Then I have to decide to effect change by changing myself into that. I want my country to be fair and just and merciful. I want my country to listen to the poor and disadvantaged and use its collective power to lift them up and help meet their needs. I want my country to value each person or group as part of the whole. I want my country to work for the good of all and for worthy purposes, not just the good of those who watch out only for themselves. I want my country to seek peaceful negotiation over violent means to solve problems, especially international problems and always to respect the fact that other countries need to watch out for their own just as we do. This requires compromise and even sacrifice.

That is a big order that I am laying out for my country. I have changed a lot in my years toward becoming person that might look like I describe above. I need to say that I could not have changed at all were it not for those souls who have journeyed with me. It is these people who form the communities around me that give me hope. These are people who, like myself, work to become what they want their world to be.


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Christian Seeking The Truth

I read a posting on Facebook recently about how Christians should be seekers of The Truth. I am a Christian and I have one question for the author of this post: “What in the heck are you talking about?!” Comments that followed went political. One person posted a picture of President Obama and some things he was supposed to have said, bad things. Whatever! It could have been someone posting a pic of Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton speaking bad things in the angriest of tone.

This blog post is about truth. I suppose that for most people, truth is facts. In other words, did such words actually come out of the mouth of such and such a person? And the next reasonable questions might be “Was this all that the person said or were there other things they said that might change the meaning of the words?” Another thing to consider is the speaker’s intention.Where they quoting someone else to make a point? Were they doing a comedy routine?

The same questions can be applied to events. What is the broader context in a situation, events that come before or after? What is the purpose of the event? A funeral, a wedding, a debate? What is the intention of those involved? All important truth-seeking questions to ask. Good stuff.

But I don’t think this is really what some people mean when they talk about truth seeking. Christians, some say, should seek The Truth (two capital T’s). This is what baffles me. I asked someone about this once and he pointed out to me that truth is not relative. “There is an absolute Truth,” he said. I don’t know about the relative part, but I couldn’t agree more with the belief in an Absolute Truth.” What I don’t agree with is that you or anyone else that is human with a finite mind and confused heart can possibly know the absolute truth about anything.  The best we can do is choose to follow whatever seems true to us today.

Peace Pilgrim said that we should live by our highest truth that we can grasp today. I really like that because I cn to tell you that my life has been full of days when I look back and realize that what I believed in the past is no longer true in the light of new evidence and awareness. Maybe that is what relative truth is. What I believe today is truer than yesterday’s truth but … there is always tomorrow.

My highest truth today is this: “Love God with your whole heart and your whole mind and your neighbor as yourself.” And for me, my neighbor means everybody.

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The True “I” in Me

Doing some deep thinking as I read Anthony deMello’s book, Awareness, this morning on the true “I” which he distinguishes from “me”. “Me” refers to a description or a statement we might make about ourselves. It is what we say that we hope will help another person know who we are. When we do this we use the word “I” but, really, no matter what I say, the words that follow never really tell who “I” am. I am Judy but if I change my name the person inside stays the same. I may say I am my body (am fat, am strong, am flexible). Every seven years, scientists tell us, the cells in my body totally change over to new cells yet “I” remain. I can say that I am a Catholic or a democrat, but this can change and “I” would still be here. I can say that I am an American but that is just a happenstance of where I was born. Had I been born elsewhere, would “I” actually be a different person?

DeMello says that “I” am the one watching “me”. “I” am the observer of “me”. I pay attention to what I am doing, to the feelings in my body, to my emotions and to my thoughts, knowing that none of this is my true self. I believe that this “I” that knows itself is actually the Spirit that dwells within. I also believe that the goal of life on this earth is to become increasingly aware of the difference between the “I” and “me”. I am here on this planet to discover who “I” truly am.

Why is this awareness important? “I” can notice that when someone says something or posts something on Facebook an emotion arises in me that I have learned to identify as anger. “I” can notice that when this happens, thoughts start running through my mind that defend me or convince me that I am right in my anger. A desire may rise up to have my say, to argue and to win an argument, to make the other person look foolish or take back what he or she said. When one is aware, “I” can know that all of these thoughts and feelings are not the true self.

“I” or the true self can ask questions like, “Why did what that person say or post make me angry?” “I” can be curious. “Did what they say challenge a belief that I have clung to for a long time?” “Did this post frighten me?” “Do these ideas make me feel that things are out of control, that is, out of my control?” “As a result of my hearing or reading these words, do I feel disrespected,  judged, or isolated?” “Am I worried about what this person or others might think of me?”

Then “I” can make a choice. “I” can choose to change my thoughts about the situation. “I” can shift from judgment to compassion. “I” can choose to find something else to think about. If the thoughts are persistent, I can step out of the situation, seek an activity that is fun or interesting to distract me. If I still have trouble shaking the thought, I can talk with someone who has helped me in the past, someone who knows me. Someone who has a sense of humor and a way of putting things in perspective.

“I” can be aware of the negative feelings sitting in me or even the pain in my body and say to it, “I know you are here, but I also know that you will not be staying.””I” knows this because it has always been so. “I” can choose not to take action while negative emotions and pain are around.

I cannot describe to you this “I” the way I can describe “me” if anyone were to ask. But “I” know that “I” am here. Sometimes I forget who “I” am but, as I get older, I remember more and more and I am grateful.

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Anthony DeMello – Awareness

I am reading Awareness by Anthony DeMello. One of the comments on the book’s back cover is “You may not have even realized you were sleepwalking.” I remember having a dream in which I woke up remembering my dream, but then realize that I was yet asleep and that my waking up was part of my dream. I had only entered a new place that felt more like being awake. Awareness, it seems, is a relative thing. One is never fully awake, only more awake than yesterday or than a few minutes ago.

DeMello was a psychologist/therapist as well as a Jesuit concerned with spirituality. “I have this great conflict within me when I choose between psychology and spirituality,” he wrote. All a psychologist can do, he says, is relieve pressure. (But) “nothing is more practical than spirituality.”

This idea seems strange to me. While spirituality feels good and important to me, to understand how my psyche works seems much more useful in the workings of the world and in my relationships with those around me.

What is spirituality? I separated it out of my religious experience a long time ago. Religion is a tool that can assist me in finding and staying on a spiritual path, but it is not the path. Spirituality, I have come to realize, is a relationship with God or with Spirit or with whatever that is that is not material. Words like “Higher Power”, “Divine Energy,” and “Life Force” come to mind. These are pretty lame yet useful attempts to describe an indescribable reality. “Love” serves well if it were not for the misuse of the word.

Psychology is the study of the psyche. I understand the psyche to mean the mind. This is why I would go to a psychologist, to discover how my mind works, how I think about and interpret the world. The role of a psychologist is to help a client see where their perceptions are misguided and then help them understand why. The “why” is not necessary but can be very helpful in order to move beyond misconceptions.

This sounds very practical to me. DeMello says that spirituality is even more practical than this. Understanding or realizing that we have been misinterpreting the world (or asleep) is no small accomplishment. In other words, waking up is when we see that what we thought was true isn’t. But psychology is less about finding truth than realizing our obstacles to the truth. “I cannot describe the truth,” he says, “No one can. All I can do (as a psychologist) is give you a description of your falsehoods so that you can drop them. All I can do for you is challenge your beliefs and belief system that makes you unhappy. All I can do for you is help you to unlearn. That is what learning is all about where spirituality is concerned – unlearning almost everything that you have ever been taught. It is about a willingness to unlearn and listen.” This reminds me of a well-known book on spirituality, The Cloud of Unknowing. But not knowing is very painful and scary. Not knowing why things happen or why people are acting as they are, not knowing outcomes, not knowing why I do what I do or think the way I think (remember Paul?)…this is very frightening, indeed.

DeMello says that most people listen for what confirms what they already think. It is hard, he says, to listen in order to discern something new. We want to think we know – it feels safer and powerful. I think DeMello is suggesting surrender, or a leap into the unknown ie. faith! Faith, he says, is an openness to the truth, no matter the consequences, no matter where it leads you and when you don’t even know where it is going to lead you. Your beliefs give you a lot of security, but faith is insecurity. (Ouch!) Faith, he says, is “being ready to listen.” He says to be open does not mean being gullible, swallowing whatever (someone) is saying. Challenge everything, he suggests. But if you want to wake up, you have to be open to the possibility that you have been asleep, or that what you believed is not the truth. Like my dream experience. “When you do that,” he says, “that is the first step to waking up.”

This is spirituality as I understand it. Much of my prayer consists of sitting in silence. My silence is not necessarily peaceful. Sometimes it feels like sitting in shackles. It is a place of not understanding what is happening around me much less what to do or say. As one who seeks God’s will in my life, it is frustrating to not know clearly what that is. Jesus said in the end, “Not my will, but thine.” Don’t deceive yourself into thinking he understood what God was up to and therefore surrendered. He had not a clue and all he could do is either fight or surrender while the shackles were attached to chains that had soldiers on the other end pulling him to places he did not wish to go.

Aware of the circumstances of my life at any given moment, I don’t know whether to act or to wait, to speak or be quiet, to let others guide me or to take control. I am in the Cloud of Unknowing. Strangely, it is out of this place that I seem to act rightly, but that is beside the point. The reason spirituality is practical is that it enables me to walk forward even when I don’t know what comes next. I may not see the road before me. I may not have the assurance that what I say or do next is the perfect thing to do or say.

In my twelve step program, we say to people who struggle to find the will of God in their lives, “Just do the next right thing.” Deep down inside we know what that is. It is the kinder of two choices. It is whatever we committed to, the responsible thing to do. It is simple. It is putting the left shoe on after the other shoe is already on the right foot. It is answering the phone with a cheery hello even when we don’t know who is on the other end. It is letting interruptions come when someone needs us more than we need to be doing our thing. It is listening more than talking because we don’t really know much anyway. It is suiting up and showing up to life as life is, not trying to recreate it into the way we would prefer it.

Waking up is what I do as I walk this spiritual path. I am aware of my steps even though I can see only a few feet before me. Once in a while, the cloud lifts and I can see the landscape. But that is temporary, for I am yet a little asleep. But I am learning to be okay with seeing only a little way before me…it is enough. This is what spirituality does for me.

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What are people afraid of?

I was having a conversation with a woman last night about the event in France, a truck crashing into a crowd and killing 84 innocent people. We agreed that these are fearful times. Where can one go that is safe? She said, “People in some other countries don’t have the same sense of the value of human as we do in America.”

“The acts of terrorism that have been happening here have been done by our own citizens,” I said.

“But it is the influence of those other nations,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say. I knew she was afraid. I have fear, too. But I am not inclined to attribute the cause of my fear to any one person or group. The only way I can imagine the source of such horror is to call it evil. Sometimes people put a face on evil and give it a name, Satan or the Devil. However you imagine it, it seems like there is some kind of force that is powerful and scary, that has the power to take over someone’s thinking and drive them to do awful things.

When people assume that evil exists particularly in a person or in a nation or neighborhood or a religion, I think they are trying to gain some kind of control. If they can say, “All Muslims are evil” all they have to do is stay away from Muslims or keep them from coming into their space; then they will be safe. This was the irrationality of the woman I was talking to. She couldn’t hear me when I pointed out that most terrorist attacks in our country are done by American citizens. I concede that they were influenced by the sick propaganda put out by terrorist groups now rampaging the world, especially the Middle East, but that is just the evil pocket of the moment. Terrorists of the past would have used a different ideology to justify their terror. In my thinking, evil occupies a space or mind wherever it can find an opening, then it will grab onto any ideology to get its victim to do evil acts.

Sounds like spirit possession, doesn’t it? I guess that is, in a way, what I am saying. I imagine evil is some entity that is floating around like a disease-carrying bacteria and looking for vulnerable human beings to attach itself to. It takes many forms, hate being one. Others are fear, anger, judgement, self-righteousness…sin might be a good name for that sort of thing.  Acts of terrorism are symptoms, like the rash that breaks out over the skin or the pain that grips the gut. These are my thoughts this morning. Gruesome, huh!

Well, if I am going to go the route of looking at evil as a disease, I might as well go a step further and think of the solution as an antibiotic an antidote. First of all, we need to understand the disease. To realize that cancer may be effecting only one part of our body is important. This is true of evil. Only a small number among human beings are vulnerable to become terrorists. Who are these people? Many folks are working on identifying them and have found that they are usually young disillusioned men or women who are also suffering from mental illness. They usually have a predisposition to violence and have access to and knowledge of weaponry.

As for Muslim terrorism, one antidote I am seeing is the work being done in mosques around the country to reach out to their youth teaching them the tenets of their faith that promote peace and hope. I saw a similar effort during the 60’s and 70’s when religious cults were rampant. Churches and other organizations stepped forward by creating groups where young people could experience a sense of belonging along with education. Another is communities that are trying to help Muslims, especially new immigrants, to find a place in society by opening the path for education and meaningful work.

As for an antibiotic, I suggest Love. Like Evil, Love can have a face. For me that face is God. Love looks for openings to come in just as Evil does. It doesn’t force itself on anyone. I believe Love is more powerful than Evil, but it doesn’t seem so. Fear and anger grab our emotions in such a way that they feel much more powerful and make us lose faith in Love’s ability to overcome Evil. The power of Love can be seen in action, but one has to be still to see it. That doesn’t fit the image of power. Power, in our way of thinking, holds a gun or pushes someone aside. Love, as we have heard is patient and kind and forgiving. Where is power in that?

For me, I have to choose to love rather than hate. It doesn’t make logical sense so I can’t enter a debate about it. I can only act using Love in any given situation. I can make an effort to listen when people speak hateful words to hear the fear or the distortions and address them if I can.

Evil yearns to take residence in me but so does Love. I know what Evil looks like because it once dwelt in me. I try to avoid it or I try to stand firm in love when confronted by it. Not easy. If I let Evil take up residence in me, it is the same as allowing cancer to jump from one organ to another. It will eventually take over the whole body. I will do my best to keep that from happening. I believe that others, too, are working to let Love reign in them. This is where my hope lies.

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A young innocent black man shot four times after being stopped by a police officer because of a broken tail light. His girlfriend records the whole event and we watch it on Facebook. Meanwhile, a four-year-old sits in the back seat watching.

Fear and anger are in the air. People take sides. It is not a good moment for America. It is a moment of crisis in the progression of our national disease.

What can one do? Pray. Care. If you must take sides, take the side of the One God who loves all, the one who is weeping right now.


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Rhetoric and the Political Campaign

My spirituality book club is reading a Karen Armstrong book right now. When it was suggested, I thought, “There is no way in hell I can read one of her books in time for the next meeting.” If you have read any of her books you know what I mean. She is the Michener of nonfiction. I was surprised that Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is only 200 pages. I wonder what kind of feat it was for Armstrong to control herself like this.

I am well into the book now. This morning I read a chapter on communicating: “How Should We Speak to One Another?” It is very pertinent in today’s world in general but especially to our current election process.

She started out talking about the tradition of debate inherited from the ancient Greeks. “In the democratic assemblies of Athens, citizens learned to debate competitively, to marshal arguments logically and effectively, and to argue their case against one another in order to win…The object was to defeat one’s opponent: nobody was expected to change his mind, be converted to the other side, or enter empathetically into the rival viewpoint.”

Socrates didn’t really like this form of dialogue. “In true dialogue,” he said, “participants must answer in a manner more gentle and more proper to discussion.” For him, Armstrong says, “dialogue was a spiritual exercise designed to produce psychological change in participants, and because its purpose was that each person should understand the depth of his ignorance, there was no way that anybody would win”

What is passed off as political discourse today is as far from Socrates’ ideal as Pluto is from the sun. Armstrong writes, “We do not engage in many dialogues like this today. The debates in our parliamentary institutions, the media, academia, and the law courts are essentially competitive. It is not enough to seek the truth; we also want to defeat, even humiliate our opponents. The malice and bullying tactics decried by Socrates are embraced with enthusiasm as part of the fun.” She goes on to say,  “A great deal of this type of discourse is a display of ego…Admitting that your opponents may have a valid point seems unthinkable. The last thing anybody intends is a change of mind.” In a debate to win an election, I’d have to say that the intent is to change minds, at least long enough to last until election day.

When the debate process began, first between Republican candidates and then Democrat, there was a strange conciliatory attitude among the debaters, a willingness to concede to the rightness of an opponent’s view on some matter. At least there was respect for a person even within disagreement. But that didn’t last long. I suppose part of the problem is that if you are really honest about the things you and the other candidates are in agreement about, people don’t know who to vote for. In time, the differences have to come to the surface. This is normal to the process, I think.

But what is happening right now is not about discourse or even about good debate. Lies are  being spewed, name calling, inferences that put an opponent in a bad light, statements taken out of context, and personal attacks concerning behaviors that have nothing to do with qualifications to serve. “No attacking family members” was an agreed upon rule as recently as in the last national election, a rule now being broken right and left.

We will get through this. I believe in the pendulum theory, though I know that people get hurt as the pendulum swings. I am disturbed by the bigger picture: the endorsing of racist attitudes and behaviors, the use of abusive rhetoric, the acceptance of throwing out lies and distortions as though they were facts, and the indifference to those who are hurt by our thoughtless blubbering. I think about children listening to words and tones even if they don’t understand their meaning. We are giving them permission to behave in ways we will punish them for later.

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