This title is a bit misleading in that it is not so much that faith itself has changed but rather our understanding of it. It used to be that when someone said they had a strong faith, we immediately assumed that they belonged to a church, temple, synagogue or some other religious tradition. Now we can no longer make that assumption. Today many people have a faith without a religious affiliation. Everyone has faith in something but the important thing is what you put your faith in. Does it bring you and those around you more peace, love and joy?
I would like to share with you this prayer which is attributed to St Therese of Lisieux, a saint who died at age 24 in 1897. To me, it captures the essence of living in faith.
May today there be peace within
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith
May you use those gifts that you have received
And pass on the love that has been given to you
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.
What a joyful, inclusive and loving prayer! St. Therese wasn’t trying to push her faith on anyone but was simply inviting them to know they are a child of God. We all express our faith in different ways. Some speak of a belief in a higher power that guides their life and gives them strength in times of trouble. We don’t have a common language to describe this very real presence of spirit in our lives. I asked a friend how she would describe her faith. She replied, “Faith is knowing there is something more than we can see.” I love the simplicity and clarity of that definition which is similar to the one found in 2 Corinthians 4:18. “We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” I asked another friend what faith was to her. She felt uncomfortable with the word “faith”, which she associated with a religion that she had left behind. The word “trust” came up for her as it conveyed more of an energy coming from within rather than directed outside of herself.
I have explored a variety of spiritual modalities, through reading and the internet. What I have found is that all these different ways of faith are essentially the same from a mystical perspective. The following story describes this idea.
A teacher asked his disciples to describe their vision of God. The first one said that God was big and powerful like the vast expanse of the heavens embracing all the stars in the galaxy. The holy man said “You’re right”. The second disciple said that God was more like the tiniest spark hidden inside each person. “You’re right”, said the teacher. The third man said: “Hey just a moment. They can’t both be right.” “And you’re right too,” said the sage.
I love this story. When I first studied theology in school, I was very much like the first disciple. Now I am more like the second. We humans often get caught up in proving that we are right. I had a rather opinionated friend who used to say “I have many faults. Being wrong isn’t one of them.”
Why is faith important? Well, we are faced with the unknown every day of our lives and so we need something to get us through this chronic uncertainty. We often push the knowledge of our vulnerability aside and try to pretend that everything is going to remain the same. Yet death continues to send us reminders that our earthly life or that of our loved ones could end at any time. How do we live with this knowledge? Often we deny it. Somehow we continue to think that death is what happens to others, not us. But denial doesn’t work for very long. We need something to ground us, to sustain us and guide us, no matter what happens to us on this very challenging earth journey.
Although everyone uses different language to describe their faith, most people refer to something beyond the world of the five senses. Eckhart Tolle, in Stillness Speaks states “An intelligence greater than the human mind is at work. You cannot get any closer to that intelligence than by being aware of your own inner energy field – by feeling the aliveness, the animating presence within the body.”
Eckhart speaks a lot about presence as the divine force that animates and guides our lives and we can only become aware of this presence in the present moment, since that is all we have - the past and the future are not real. He points out how our thinking leads us away from living a peaceful life. Sometimes we think life and other people, should go according to our expectations. But life isn’t like that. It never unfolds the way we think it should and so often we get upset.
I used to think that faith was about improving my life (and that of my loved ones) in the external world. I thought faith could improve my health, my relationships and bring me more success in my work. It can certainly do all those things but I now believe it goes so much deeper than that. I find that surrender to what is, brings more peace and contentment. Again I quote Eckhart.
When you say “yes” to the “isness” of life, when you accept this moment as it is, you can feel a sense of spaciousness within you that is deeply peaceful…Acceptance of the unacceptable is the greatest source of grace in this world.
I was brought up to believe that God was separate from us. I now believe that we are all part of a divine, collective intelligence which includes all beings - animals, insects, plants, trees, oceans, rivers and the earth. If we truly believed in our hearts that we are all one divine consciousness, then we could not devastate the rainforests, pollute our waters and kill off other species and humans for our own greed. I am convinced that God rests in the essence of each and every one of us. This knowing can bring us joy, peace and love. But sometimes we need to, in St Therese’s words, “let this presence settle into your bones and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.”
I have just tried to describe something that is un-describable. Faith in ultimate being is not about words but if I were to pick one word to describe it, that word would be Mystery. Maybe we just need to surrender to and embrace the wonder of this Mystery and become comfortable with not knowing.
I am an old woman
That’s quite an age, I would say
I am what they call frail elderly
What does that mean exactly?
Well, I am wobbly on my feet
I have aches and pains in most places
Sometimes I can’t even straighten up.
Sometimes I drop things
and can't open jars
I go to the bathroom often
Occasionally I don’t make it
But pads help.
Depressing, you might say
But I would say
No, not at all.
You see, that is not really me
It is just a costume
That disguises who I truly am.
Then, who am I?
I’m getting closer to answering that
How? By a strange route
It turns out that my pain has been my greatest gift
Although I resist it and curse it
Especially at night in my frequent trips to the bathroom
I pour out my rage and grief and fear.
But still it assaults my body
And I learn that it is not only the pain I am angry at
It goes deeper than that
It has been with me a long time
I rage in silence
Just like my mother
I never wanted to be like her
But I’ve discovered I am more like her
Than I would like to admit.
But you know something
When you face your demons
They are not all that bad
I don’t mind being like her
She is tender and fierce
And angry and critical
But I’m learning something from swimming
In these murky turbulent waters
I’m learning that I love my mother
And I forgive her for her anger and criticism and judgment
And I love and accept all these warts in myself
I needed them at one time
They are not needed anymore
But still they cling
Like burrs on a dog’s coat
They are part of the armour of my wounded inner child
I remove them gently and lovingly.
It may sound weird
But I am spending time with my inner child
Singing with her
Reading children’s books
And listening to her complaints
Crying with her
Laughing with her
Loving her tenderly.
So is there light at the end of this dark tunnel
Absolutely there is
I can’t be sure but I think
I am in the middle of a transformation
It is the death of all that was
So that the new me can emerge
It is happening each day as I preside
Over the decline of my body
A body that doesn’t walk, stand and get up
The way it used to
Each day I grieve its passing and then let go.
So I will introduce you to the new me
Though I am only just getting acquainted with her myself
She is a lot like the old me
Except she laughs more, sings more and cries more
She is less critical of herself and others
When things don’t go so well
She may curse first but then she smiles
And says I choose love
When she judges herself or others
She says I choose peace.
I am in wilderness territory right now
As death looms closer, I realize how blessed I am
I am blessed by my family and friends
And by life itself
I don’t know how all this will turn out
I know I can’t do this alone
So I surrender all my fears to the Divine Beloved
My mantra these days is
My soul magnifies the Lord.
Yesterday an old song that I hadn’t thought of for years popped into my head. It was “Ah sweet mystery of Life” from the 1935 movie, “Naughty Marietta” with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. I remember seeing it as a child but can’t tell you much about it. Here is an excerpt from the song.
Ah sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found thee.
Ah I know at last the secret of it all.
All the longing, seeking, striving, waiting, yearning…
For tis love and love alone that can repay
This song was written about two people who were in love but the words could also suggest a more transcendent love. It speaks of yearning, seeking, striving and finding. For much of my life, I yearned and sought for love, mostly outside myself. Now as I approach the end of my life, I hope that I am a little closer to finding the secret of it all. I do find it a mystery – what life is all about and why I am here. But I am pretty sure of one thing and that is the simple truth that love is the most important thing in life. I believe it is why we are here, to learn to love God and all beings, human and non-human.
When I was young, I was very romantic and hoped for a perfect love. Life soon shattered these illusions. I then tried to practice love through service to others in my social work profession and in ministry. This never seemed enough because I think unconsciously I was seeking God’s love through good deeds. I now believe that each one of us is loved deeply and extravagantly by God just for being who we are and not for anything we have done or not done to deserve it. How utterly astounding is that!
Most of us love our family and close friends and this is important, as it teaches us a lot about how to love. But what about loving our enemies as Jesus taught us - those who are different from us, unlovable or even violent. Yesterday I listened to an interview with Father Gregory Boyle, who started Homeboy Industries in L.A., a rehabilitation centre for gang members. These hardened former gang members were offered services such as employment, training, education and tattoo removal. But the most important thing they were offered was love. One recovered gang member recently released from prison put it this way. “All my life I have been watched. But until I came to Homeboy, I was never seen.” These tough guys and girls were cherished, accepted and loved for who they truly were beyond their façade of tattoos and violence. When we see the other and are seen for who we truly are, something beautiful emerges. Sadly it doesn’t happen often enough because our eyes have scales of conditioning that prevent us from seeing the beauty of other beings.
Why do we find it so hard to love our “enemies” or the people who are very different from us? Pogo, Walt Kelly’s funny animal comic strip character, had a surprising answer to this question. “We have met the enemy and he is us.” This is a very profound truth. So often we reject in others the things we don’t want to see in ourselves. I have discovered a rather alarming truth and that is that I am more like my mother in ways that I don’t want to be. She had a tendency to be angry, critical and judgmental. Me too. I have been learning to face and accept these unacceptable qualities in myself. If we are to love others, I think we have to start with loving ourselves just the way we are, even the things that are not so nice. Surprisingly, as I accept and love myself including these negative qualities, I find myself feeling more loving toward others and myself.
I am coming to realize that these negative qualities that I don’t like in myself are coming from my own wounded inner child. All of us have been wounded to some degree by life in the form of parents, teachers, other authority figures or our peers. We can heal from these wounds if we learn to love ourselves without conditions. Most spiritual teachers and sages teach that it is not what happens to us that is the problem but what we think about what happens. My experience bears this out. The anger and hurt I feel comes from my inner child and was her armour against what she felt was criticism. Sometimes a good question to ask this little, inner kid is “how can I best love you?” Usually the answer I get is “just love me the way I am.” Through a process of mindfulness meditation and self-inquiry, I have become more aware of what I am telling myself about my experiences. I don’t criticize myself for feeling this way – that would only add another layer of criticism. It is somewhat like cleansing my body from toxins. This process takes persistence because if I don’t stay aware, those unhappy thoughts can return and taint my perception.
This would be an overwhelming task except that we don’t have to do it alone. In fact, we can’t do it alone. I constantly ask for divine guidance on how to handle these difficult feelings – questions such as “why do I feel this way? What can I do about it?” The only thing that makes all of this possible is that our true nature is love. We often forget this and need to remember that we are each an aspect of God and we have our unique part to play in bringing light and love to the world. This may sound naïve since if we look around, there is lots of negativity and anger in the world. Yet if we look past the outward appearance of others, including ourselves, we can see into our true essence which is love. I find it difficult not to react angrily when I meet anger. What helps me is to start with the assumption that most people are doing the best they can, given their life circumstances. We can never really know what another person is dealing with and so how can we possibly judge them? I have learned from these little experiments of mine that love is not just a feeling. It is a choice. I have to keep reminding myself to choose love.
Tis the answer, tis the end of all of living
For tis love alone that rules for aye.
I wonder what it would take for love to rule the world. Perhaps each person practicing love in their own way.
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” This quote from Alexander Pope suggests the universality of hope in the human heart, no matter the circumstances. In other words as long as have hope, we can keep going. I am reminded of a folk tale about my favourite mythological character, Nasrudin, also known as the holy fool or trickster.
One night a neighbour noticed Nasrudin outside under the street lamp brushing through the dust. “Have you lost something, my friend?” He asked. Nasrudin explained that he had lost his key and asked the neighbour to help him find it.
After many minutes of searching and turning up nothing, the neighbour asked him, “Are you sure you lost the key here?”
“No, I lost it inside the house” Nasrudin answered.
“Then why are you looking for it here?”
“Well, there is more light out here, of course,” Nasrudin replied.
Nasrudin sure sounds foolish in this story, doesn’t he? Why would anyone look for their key where they knew it could not be found? Well, don’t we all do that in a way? We think that the key to our happiness (pun intended) lies out there, in the familiar, external world, not within the mystery of our own human heart.
I have been thinking a lot about hope recently. For most of us, hope is tied to a positive outcome. Sometimes hope becomes wishful thinking and when this happens, it loses its power. When we undergo a crisis in our lives, such as the death of someone we love, a critical illness or the loss of a job, our hope is that things will get better in the future. But what if they don’t? Where is our hope then? Do we give up in despair or is there another kind of unconditional hope?
It’s only after a lot of looking for answers outside ourselves and coming up empty that we may finally decide to look within for our hope. Like Nasrudin, it is easier to look for solutions to our problems in the known places, rather than the unknown. Going within and exploring our divine soul may seem like undertaking a wilderness journey. It is an unknown, mysterious place with no signs to guide us. Most of us like to stick to known, familiar territory where we feel safer. This may work well enough until we hit a crisis in our lives. Then we may need to look deeper into our being.
I will give you an example from my own life. I have had chronic arthritis for many years, bringing with it much pain and discomfort. I have tried pretty well every solution I can find “out there” – chiropractors, physio-therapists, doctors, pain clinics, pain pills, supplements and a variety of healing modalities and practitioners. I tried one thing after another hoping for improvement. None of these have brought substantial or permanent change. Recently I came to the realization that my condition probably would not change very much. I will still continue to do everything I can to improve my health but at the same time I am learning to accept my body the way it is right now. In surrendering to this reality, I discovered within myself a different kind of hope.
I turn to the poet, Emily Dickinson to describe this indescribable hope.
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all. And sweetest in the Gale is heard and sore must be the storm that could abash the little bird that kept so many warm”
I love that Emily depicts hope as a bird, which to me symbolizes freedom. It also has feathers which are very light. Having this kind of hope brings a lightness to my quest. It also never stops singing its song no matter what storm is raging on the outside.
I can only access this hope when I am residing in the present moment. If I focus on the past (the way things used to be) or on future decline or improvement, I don’t hear the song of hope. I am learning not to identify so much with the pain but to witness it. This doesn’t chase away the pain but it keeps it at a distance - it becomes less a tyrant and more of a severe teacher. I feel that this has become my soul’s curriculum for this stage in my life. I am learning to embrace the mystery of who I am as a divine being living in a human body. In doing this I can’t help embracing the divinity of all beings and of life itself in all its beautiful and terrible manifestations. If this sounds like Nasrudin on a fool’s errand, looking for his key in the light, then so be it. I admit to even enjoying my foolishness.
Until recently I had only a fuzzy idea of what a blog was. Then I published a book and was encouraged by my promotion consultant to start one, so here I am, writing my very first blog. At first I felt some apprehension as I thought about becoming a blogger. I laughed when I noticed my ego trying to take over this enterprise. I then relaxed and turned it over to my heart, focusing on what was the most important thing I wanted to say to you.
This excerpt from a well-known children’s story illustrates with a profound simplicity what I want to say. It is from the best-selling book called “The boy, the mole, the fox and the horse” by Charlie Mackesy. Sometimes” said the horse. “Sometimes what” asked the boy? “Sometimes just getting up and carrying on is brave and magnificent.” In my book, Old, I write that just being old takes courage. I would go further than that now and say that just being human takes courage.
Courage and vulnerability go together. It takes courage to live in a human body that is subject to illness, accident and death. It takes courage to form relationships and to start a family when we don’t know how all this will turn out. When we are children, it takes courage to go to school each day, especially if we are being teased or bullied or having trouble keeping up in the classroom. It takes courage to show up for work each day, not knowing what challenges we will face.
There are days when we don’t feel like showing up at all, when we are discouraged, ill, depressed or just plain tired. Yet most of the time we do manage to get up and carry on. “No big deal” we would say. We don’t expect kudos for that and would probably scoff if someone called us magnificent. But think about it. Isn’t there something magnificent about daring to carry on in the face of the unknown when we are feeling so vulnerable and fearful about the outcome?
Have I convinced you? Maybe not. Brave and magnificent are words usually reserved for special people and exceptional deeds. Getting up and carrying on sounds pretty mundane and ordinary. Well, yes it is, but there are times when we feel so overwhelmed that we don’t want to keep going. Our mind tells us that we can’t do it or it is too much for us. These self-doubts drag us down. But there is also something else in us that is brave enough not to listen to this voice of doubt and derision and we manage to get ourselves up and carry on. What happens next? Do we listen to the horse’s wisdom and congratulate ourselves for our bravery and magnificence? More likely we continue our self-minimizing thoughts like “No big deal” or “so what.”
I am going to suggest something radical which may feel uncomfortable at first. What if we became our own cheerleader? What if we recognized and respected our own unique magnificence and cheered ourselves on? It has taken me a lifetime to realize the truth that our magnificence comes from our being truly ourselves. That is our gift to the world. No one else knows how to be us better than we do. Each of us has our own way of being ourselves as we carry on, whether we are going to work, cooking meals, cleaning up or doing the laundry.
Sometimes this being ourselves is harder than it sounds. Sometimes we forget who we are because we have been so used to trying to be what others expect or want us to be. When that happen, the best thing we can do is remind ourselves of who we are and carry on again. If you still don’t feel very brave, I would like to suggest an exercise. Think of the times when you have gone to a really good play or concert and been part of a standing ovation with everyone shouting out “bravo” to the performers. Each time you get up and carry on when you don’t feel like it, imagine that a crowd of angels are shouting out “bravo” to you. Or, if you don’t believe in angels, you can just give yourself a standing ovation. Bravo! Bravo!