Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Bit of an Accident

If you follow this column regularly you may be wondering whether something happened last week that kept me from posting as usual on Sunday. Well, indeed it did!

Last Sunday morning. There I was, on my way to the Refectory for breakfast, intending to make a stop-over in the kitchen to get myself some gluten-free bread. I was going the outside way, around the river side of the building. When I got to the kitchen door, I started up the 3 stairs to the door, put my foot down wrong and missed the middle step. Down I went, which wouldn't have been much of an incident, but I fell slightly to one side and hit my head on the brick wall of the building and ended up flat out on the pavement. Edward, our chef, came dashing out and was the soul of kindness. The only problem was that he was wanting to get me up, and it took a while before I was ready to try that. Then we had to find something to deal with the bleeding, which was quite vigorous, and I needed to get readjusted to being upright. Shock.

Not to keep you in suspense, I ended up with some bruised ribs, a quite mild concussion, and a cut that needed 4 stitches. Oh, and a skinned knee - mustn't forget that piece. I wasn't in the mood for writing for quite a few days. I guess everyone gets to the point in life when they finally realize that a fall is not a small thing, and I certainly learned that lesson last Sunday morning. I was very, very fortunate, because even with all that happened, it wasn't a terribly serious event, and with just a bit different fall it could have been. I've healed quite rapidly: the symptoms of the concussion were gone by the end of the day, the stitches came out on Friday and the doctor is satisfied with the wound's healing, and even the ribs, which I know usually take weeks to get better have come along quite nicely - still some pain, but this morning I stopped taking the pain medication and I'm doing fine. But I surely know that I have been through something, and that I have a way to go.

So.... I should say something spiritual, yes? After all, this column is supposed to be about the life of a monk and how the spiritual path runs through everything that happens. So how did it run through this particular happening?

Well, first of all I think of the caretakers I encountered that morning. First, there was Edward, who was so kind and attentive. That was such a help, to have that while I was still trying to get up off the fround. Then let me say that I can't say enough good things about the Emergency Room at Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie. They have a sign over their door about how highly their patients have rated them, and if I am counted, their rating will only go up. It's actually a pleasant pleasant place to be. I didn't have to wait long. And the staff was, without exception, kind and caring.

They got me cleaned up and determined that I had no major problems but that I needed stitches. In short order a young Physician's Assistant appeared and did the stitches. I felt nothing. Nothing. Which is exactly what I wanted to feel in that situation. Bernard, who was with me and in a somewhat better state to be objective, said that it was a real pleasure to watch the PA work because he was such a craftsman. He is a true healer. I've written before about how akin the path is for meditators and for people who practice a craft, and I experienced all of that, with a layer of cheer, concern and kindness added to it. What more could I have asked? We are called by the Gospel to care for each other, and I experienced real caring. God was in the middle of that, and it was clear. When Bernard said to the PA that we would pray for him in his ministry he was obviously rather startled and also quite pleased. Then I was sent on my way with detailed paperwork explaining about caring for the laceration and the concussion, and promising all kinds of support if I needed it.

And..... you may not believe this part of it, but I was there for less than 2 hours, and they apologized to me for taking so long! When I think of the times I've spent in emergency rooms, well, this was quite different.

This whole incident has also awakened my awe and wonder at the body's healing mechanisms. No sooner had I fallen, than my body swung into action, marshaling all the things it needed to begin healing the various parts of my body that had been assaulted. I think I'm particularly aware of this because my healing has been so rapid. Day by day it was obvious that my body was hard at work on this project, and I could see and feel what was happening. That is just plain awesome. And awe is one of the things that is necessary for a spiritual life. You can't see God without awe, and conversely, experiencing awe does open you to the divine. So this week opened me a bit more to the depths that the spiritual paths leads me through.

And the Psalms - the good old Psalms - opened up a bit more. There's quite a bit of complaining in the Psalms about what happens to the body. Lots of crying out to God about my strength failing, my body feeling like there is no healthy part in me, and the experience of dragging myself through the days because of one sickness or another. Usually those phrases go by me without too much response on my part, but not this week. And this is one of the biggest gifts the Psalms have to give us; there is nothing in human experience that isn't prayed in them. It serves, for one thing, as a powerful reminder - oh yes, I may be miserable, but I can pray that stuff. I may be suffering, and it may be hard to pull my mind together to pay attention, and I may not want much attention anyway, because it makes me aware of the unpleasant things that I'm feeling, but I really can pray that. I don't have to just endure it. It can be part of the link between God and me. "Though my heart and my flesh should fail, God is my help and my portion forever." I kept that on my mirror at one time in my life when I was going through a long illness. And it came back to be with me this week.

Wherever you go on this path, some awakening, some deepening awaits. Not that it's all going to be joyful or fun, but we can just consent to being opened. Just doing that is enough for the Spirit to enter, and then some transformation is possible.

It's also nice to have come far enough to be feeling pretty good again!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Big Changes

Sorry for being late this week - a combination of technical difficulties with the site and the time crunch that this produced.

Anyone who writes for public consumption gets a lot of different responses, and I have been musing this week on the content of those responses. I'm especially interested on responses to the times when I write about my own frail nature.

Like last week - I talked about having the expectation that getting home after weeks of a strenuous series of trips would be pure joy, and about how anxious I was to settle into my usual routine and to plumb the depths of it, and of finding instead that I was restless, anxious, keyed up, unable to settle and barely able to keep to my routine, and that I was just going to have to endure that until my embodied spirit got readjusted.

Some people are happy to hear a message like that. They have similar experiences and often feel guilty about them. Just like I do. They get some affirming from hearing someone else say they had the same experience, and had the same ambiguous reaction to it. They're glad to know that they aren't alone in all of this and that at least one person thinks that it's o.k. to have this experience and that it doesn't mean that they have dropped out of the spiritual path altogether.

But there are others who have quite a different experience of reading what I have written. They are usually smaller in number, but often make up in the power of their vocal reaction what may be lacking in their numbers. They have responses that range from disappointment to unbelief to real anger, and sometimes to outright fury. They can't believe that if I had an experience like this, that I would write about it. This isn't the kind of approach to spirituality that they want to hear. Over the years I have had everything from my approach to my integrity questioned.

Well, I understand both reactions. I know how deeply satisfying and supportive it can be to find that you're not alone and that you're not all wrong. I also know what it's like to build expectations that aren't met and to have those expectations challenged and to see them fall apart. I've been in both places.

I'll just say that it is important to me to recognize the realities of human nature and of the physical body, and that the limitations of both our physical and our emotional nature are part of the spiritual path. I've learned, to my delight, that it's even possible to have considerable spiritual progress come as a result of just being who I am in the body that I happen to have. I think this is an important part of an incarnational approach to my faith.

I'm remembering an article that I read some time ago written by some sociologists who went to India to do psychological testing on men and women who were recognized by their communities to be enlightened people, people of real spiritual realization and knowledge. They wanted to explore the ways in which significant spiritual development affects personal development and psychological functioning. The results of the testing were quite a surprise to them. The tests indicated very little in the way of extraordinary changes in personality structure. These paragons of spirituality couldn't actually be told from everyone else in psychological terms. They were just are neurotic as most people, and their spiritual development hadn't changed that. They were, in a word, ordinary people. What was different about them was the way in which they were able to accept themselves. They saw all sorts of faults in themselves and difficulties in the ways in which they functioned, but they also had kindness and patience with themselves, and of course as a result of this they had kindness and patience with everyone else. They also had a good deal of humor. They had a perfectly normal amount of idealism, and they also knew what it is like to live with ideals that are never achieved. They were both deeply devoted spiritual men and women and also comfortable with being ordinary people, and this made them extraordinary people.

I think that the good news of the spiritual pilgrimage is that among the things we discover in our journey is who we really are, and what what we develop includes an ability to accept and treasure who we are because it is God's gift to us. And this very discovery means big changes get made, energy gets liberated, discoveries come to us. Big things happen on our spiritual journeys, but they are almost inevitably things we weren't expecting, or even wanting.

I was told by my Novice Master years ago that the secret to discovering a vocation in the monastic life was to know that you wouldn't get any of the things that you hoped to get in this life. It was certainly true. I had to discover how unrealistic and unhelpful most of what I had hoped for was, and to let those fantasies go. The big gift in all of that was that I also discovered that what I got in this community was a whole lot better that what I wanted. My vocation has indeed been a big surprise gift. And I'm not the only one with this experience. Perhaps this is the truth of any relationship. The journey to God is like that for us all. And now that I'm getting old and have been here a long time, I'm even discovering that some of the things I wanted to begin with are beginning to come to me. They're coming in ways that I wouldn't have dreamed of and in forms that I wouldn't have wanted originally, but they're coming.

God is very surprising. And very good.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Return, Cont'd

When I wrote last week, I had just gotten back from my wanderings of the summer. I was talking about "settling down". About being where I belong. I was looking forward to getting back into the life here and musing on how the events of the summer were going to be affecting my monastic journey.

Boy, did I underestimate what I was going to have to cope with!

So how did this week of gentle reflection and deep prayer actually turn out? Well, I had major difficulties sleeping. Every time I looked inside what I saw was more like chaos than peace. When I tried to force myself to meditate I got emotional rebellion on a major scale. I was, in short, a mess.

This was not, to put it mildly, what I was expecting. Hadn't I had several enriching journeys? Had I not benefited wonderfully? Wasn't I looking forward to integrating everything I had experienced since the beginning of July?

It took several days of puzzled struggling before I began to cope consciously with the realities of what I had put myself through. In less than 8 weeks I had traversed through 9 time zones and 14,000 feet of altitude. I had changed my diet several times. I had coped with all of the wonderful stuff people had offered me in the way of things to eat and to drink. My hours of sleeping had been wildly erratic. The physical demands had been considerable.

And now I had suddenly stopped. Did I think I was going to settle down automatically and quickly? Did I think that peace and inner harmony were going to envelop me on call? Whatever would cause me to expect that? The image that comes to mind is a big tub of water being sloshed around. When you stop pushing the tub, the water still keeps sloshing back and forth for quite a while. It doesn't settle down immediately.

That's me. Sloshing.

Add to this the fact that one of the things I deal with on the physical level is a fairly severe case of Hypoglycemia. And one of the first things I learned about coping with this condition when I was diagnosed years ago is to avoid anything that would upset the adrenal system. Eat at the same time every day. No big changes. Go to bed at the same hour every night and get up at the same time every morning. Be careful of big emotional swings. Take it gently and quietly.

Oh sure. The exact opposite of what I've been up to for weeks. No wonder it seems to me that I'm such a mess inside - I am! Among other things, adrenaline is pumping through my body, and I suddenly have ceased doing all the stuff that produced this reaction. The adrenal system produces lots of wonderful chemicals that have all kinds of emotional, psychological and physical effects, and this has major spiritual effects as well.

Not that the spiritual life can be reduced to a matter of what my adrenaline is doing, but the body is a crucial part of the life of prayer, for better or for worse. And for the moment, things are rather on the worse side. When it comes to the spiritual journey, the body isn't going to be ignored.

It will calm down, of course. I'm already seeing that. There are various things I can do to help that along too: diet, regularity of sleep, breath work, gentle exercise. And I can observe the progress of this curious pilgrimage my body is making. I can also make some plans. I knew that doing the programs in England and Kansas back to back was not the best idea. I was right. I've said that I'm not doing that again. I have to be serious about that. I already know that I'm doing the Benedictine Experience in Canterbury again in two years, so I have plenty of time to get serious about how I plan that time. Obviously I have limits, and I have to be respectful of that. Easier said than done, of course, but I have to be serous about it. This is a physical matter, and it is a spiritual one.

It's also a pretty amazing experience, all things considered. You never stop encountering things that you can learn from.