Family Troubles: Reflections on My Life (Part I in a series)

crazy dad

My blog has gotten me into lots of trouble lately with people I care about – family members, former students, and academic colleagues.  So I feel I owe them an explanation of where I’m coming from. It’s complicated. It has taken me a long time to get from normalcy to what my son-in-law terms “your father’s crazy theories.”

But before I get to that, here’s the trouble I’m in.

My recent review of the Broadway musical, “Hamilton” ticked off my children – all three of them. They love the play. Now they’re not too sure about me!

You see, I wrote off “Hamilton” as a reverse minstrel show.  Black and brown equivalents of Stepin Fetchit and Bojangles, I said, simply endorse the “official story” of American history. They prostitute their revolutionary rap music to celebrate their own people’s white oppressors like Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and James Madison. All the while the actors ignore their own bitter backstory of slavery and “Indian” extermination. The audience leaves the theater royally entertained but with their prejudices not only intact but reinforced.

My children didn’t like that. Two of them unsubscribed from my blog. I’m too extreme, they said. “You’re always so anti-American. You’re as knee-jerk on the left as Rush Limbaugh is on the right. I’m tired of reading your “commie crap.”

A former student and a university colleague implied the same thing when they responded to another post, “In Defense of ISIS” (Scroll down this blog to January 19, 2015).

There I had tried to say that ISIS is much more than a group of pathological killers. They have longstanding historical grievances that go back 1400 years. Those grievances were aggravated over the last 80 years as Arabia was balkanized in a major act of “divide and rule” by England, France, the United States and others. Moreover, ISIS does more than terrorize those under its sway, I said. It also wins hearts and minds by providing a wide array of social services.

The colleague said I romanticized a brutal military force that controls by terror and gives aid only to those who agree with its viewpoint. (Which sounded to me a lot like the United States!)

And what about ISIS’ public executions and all those beheadings? That was the objection of my former student.  In one of those executions, she pointed out, a 20 year old son executed his own 35 year-old mother for apostasy. He did so in front of a crowd of hundreds apparently approving of his act. Tell me that’s not pathological, she demanded. (For my answer, scroll down to January 23, 2015).

And then there’s a close relative of mine who stopped talking to me when I pointed out that Muslim refugees shouldn’t be profiled or looked on with suspicion. They’re here, I said, because we’ve bombed their homes! We’ve done that in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere. If we want to keep them out, we should stop the bombing.

But, she asked, if we leave, what would happen in Syria?

We have no dog in that fight, I replied. We should simply stop the bombing and leave the Arabian Peninsula to fend for itself. The only reason we’re there is for the oil.

At that point my dear relative hung up on me.

You see what I mean? I’m in deep trouble with everyone.

So let me explain myself. I want the series of articles I have in mind to show that my “crazy theories” didn’t just fall out of the sky. They’re based on life experience that has taken me all over the world, on what I’ve learned during my 40+ years of teaching and research, and on trying to think about all of that in a disciplined way. Be forewarned: my thinking centralizes a personal faith shaped by my allegiance to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and prophetic atheism.

(More next Tuesday)

Re-Firement: Five Years On . . .

Cincinnatus_in_retirement

Just this morning I had a conversation about retirement with a neighbor who is a very good friend of mine. “How’s retirement going for you?” he asked. “A lot better,” I answered.

And It has.

Fact is: up until recently, I’ve had a hard time finding my legs in this new phase of my life. With my family not exactly on board with my decision to leave teaching, I’ve experienced some discomfort and second-guessing on my part.

And then too there’s the element that since retiring (five years ago), I haven’t really left the classroom. I taught in a Latin American Studies Program in Costa Rica for several semesters. And then I did some filling-in for a couple of terms at Berea College on behalf of a colleague who had fallen ill. Last year at this time I taught a course there called “Poverty and Social Justice.” (And that was nice, since it brought my number of years teaching at Berea to exactly 40.)

The bottom line is that since my retirement, I’ve been out of the saddle for only two semesters – other than my time spent traveling.

And the traveling has been extensive. I’ve been all over the map – to Mexico (two summers), Cuba (three weeks), India (five months), South Africa (six months), and Italy (twice for three weeks at a time) – and then those months in Costa Rica I mentioned.

It was in South Africa that I started my blog. And that’s been fun – hundreds of entries published. A hundred and twenty-nine of them have appeared in OpEdNews – an alternative on-line news source I recommend to everyone.  And over the past year or so some of those pieces have crept into the Lexington Herald-Leader about every four to six weeks.

In India I discovered yoga, weight lifting and Vipassana meditation. (See my reflections on Vipassana here.)  Yes, I had been meditating twice a day since 1998.  But the method I learned in India challenged so much of what I had been doing – moved it to a deeper level. And that started me on the road to rethinking everything about the spirituality and theology I’ve developed over my 75 years of life.

The works of Ken Wilber, A Course in Miracles, Marianne Williamson, and Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God have all played a part in that. Walsch’s three-volume work has been especially influential; I’m finishing its close reading for the second time. In many ways it has turned my world upside down.  It has surprised me at some turns, confirmed what I’ve long believed at others, and simply evoked my denial-reflex at still others. In every case Conversations with God has caused me to wrestle with questions I thought long since resolved. Very exciting!

My latest project has been writing a study-guide for Pope Francis’ new encyclical. The 150 page book will be ready for distribution in about two weeks. That’s exciting for me since my approach to Laudato Si’ is to understand it in the context of Latin American history and liberation theology. Laudato Si’ is terrific, as is Evangelii Gaudium. Francis is asking us, I’m arguing, to re-think not only climate change, but capitalism, American history, theology, and understandings of church.

Everything I’ve just mentioned has led me to become more comfortable with retirement. At times lately I find myself thinking that life for me has turned more interesting, engaging and productive than ever before in its new stage.

And I don’t think that’s true only for me.  I mean: what about you? Don’t you think that these are especially exciting, extraordinarily creative, and unusually challenging times? As I see them, they are nearly as exciting and promising as the 1960s, which I was so blessed to live through.

There’s something going on in the world. The positive forces of evolution are aligning on one side and becoming not only more vociferous, but are finding more receptive audiences everywhere. And by the same token, the less-evolved opponents of those positive forces are engaged in a death-struggle they are bound eventually to lose.

More about that next time . . .

Sunday Homily: Is Liberation Theology Obsolete? Insights of the Enlightened Jesus

Enlightened Jesus

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: GN 12:1-4A; PS 33: 4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; 2 TM 1: 8B-10; MT 17: 1-9 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/031614.cfm

Have you ever gone through a period when you profoundly question how you’re spending your life? I’m thinking especially about suspicions that you might not be giving enough attention to your interior life – to your enlightenment.

Today’s gospel reading about Jesus’ transfiguration before his friends on a mountaintop with Moses and Elijah raises the issue. Matthew’s account presents a literally en-lightened Jesus. He’s suddenly filled with light. His face shines like the sun; his garments become white as snow. The story points towards enlightenment as the purpose of life with all other matters being secondary. . . .

Personally, Jesus’ transfiguration makes me wonder about all the things I do that distract me from the pursuit of personal enlightenment — distractions from meditation, my mantra, and the other spiritual disciplines the Great Masters tell us are necessary to attain union with God..

I’ll get back to that in a moment.

But let me contextualize my reflections by confessing my own recurring doubts about finding myself on mistaken path of activism. I mean lately I’ve been wondering if in my thinking, teaching and writing I’m too concerned with politics, economics, and issues of oppression and liberation – too influenced, perhaps, by liberation theology. In fact, over the past six months those wonderings have been surfacing with renewed intensity.

I blame it on India.

And why not? Four months spent in such an exotic atmosphere with its sea of people, intense traffic, dime-a-dozen gurus, wild auto-rickshaws, cows on the street, colorful temples, poverty, spicy food, and wonderfully kind people will raise questions about everything.

On top of that there was yoga every day, past life review, learning prana yama (breath control), and living inter-generationally with my daughter, her husband and three children under five. All of that can cause one to question everything.

Above all, a ten day silent Vipassana retreat with its strict “noble silence,” and 10 hours of meditation each day (100 hours in 10 days) will do the trick. So – to repeat – I find myself questioning everything, including all the things I’ve held important in life. I question what I’ve taught my students over my forty years in the college classroom – you know, about economic systems, on the history of colonialism, liberation theology, and the development of the Jesus tradition.

By the way, I am back teaching again. (That’s been my principal form of activism all my life.) And suddenly my life threatens to become very busy, involved, and outward-turned. Oh, right now it’s not nearly the way it was when I was teaching full time. Currently I teach a two-hour class on Monday, and then I have a day off. Wednesdays there’s another two-hour class followed by four days off. That’s not so bad at all, I’m sure you agree. The point is, however, that teaching has me back on campus.

So a couple of weeks ago, one of the deans saw me there walking across Berea’s quadrangle. He thought, “There’s the man I’ve been looking for.” And pretty soon he’s asking me about directing and administering a prison project Berea’s been asked to join.” (It’s the “Bard Prison Initiative” which offers college degrees to inmates.) The dean asked me if I’d be interested.

I said yes. And now I find myself recruiting Berea teachers to take part – helping prisoners in the Northpoint Training Center/Prison in Danville Kentucky to obtain a Berea College degree. So I’m back organizing and attending meetings. True: it’s a wonderful opportunity in so many ways. But it’s filling up my plate which had become delightfully manageable after I retired from Berea College and stopped my teaching in Costa Rica.

What about meditation then, I wonder? What about the pursuit of enlightenment as (at my age) I’m increasingly aware that the moment of death getting closer and closer? Will new responsibilities distract me from such concerns?

Once again, my questions are intensified by what I learned about Jesus specifically in India. There people kept telling me that during his “hidden life” or “lost years,” Jesus had spent time on the subcontinent. They said that between the ages of 12 and 30, Jesus traveled to India and studied under Buddhist masters who schooled him in the ways of Gautama who lived 500 years earlier.

Though virtually no Christian scholars give such tales any credence, many Indian spiritual guides simply take it for granted that Jesus’ time in India. They even point to documents discovered in a Tibetan monastery that offer “proof” of Jesus’ years there.

Even apart from such evidence they ask: how else can we explain Jesus’ teachings about divine sonship and identity with the “Lord of All”? After all, those teachings agree with the tenets of Indian mysticism, viz. (1) that there’s a spark of the divine within us all, (2) that such divinity can be realized (i.e. expressed in life), (3) that it is the purpose of life to do so, and (4) that once we see the divine spark within ourselves we inevitably recognize it as well in every other human being and in all creatures of the earth.

Though I agree with the literal contrary opinions of the scholars just mentioned, I also believe that Jesus did, in a sense, travel to India. He did so, I’d say, in the way that all mystics travel the world – by tuning into the Universal Spirit in whom we live and move and have our being. That Spirit leads mystics wherever they find themselves to reach the same conclusions about the divine that resides within us all. It’s as though they all sat at the Buddha’s feet – or at the feet of the Enlightened Jesus – without ever leaving home. In that sense, Jesus did indeed travel to India.

And that brings me to today’s gospel and the answer it holds to questions about how to invest one’s life – and about the obsolescence of liberation theology. In the gospel, Peter, James and John find themselves at the feet of the enlightened Jesus. They’re on the ground prostrated. But significantly, Moses and Elijah are there too.

That last element (the presence of Moses and Elijah) answers (I think) my question about balancing activism and the pursuit of enlightenment. The two prophetic giants represent the entire Hebrew Tradition: “The Law” (Moses) and “The Prophets” (Elijah).

Moses was the great liberator who led a slave rebellion against Egypt’s pharaoh 1200 years before the birth of Jesus. Like Jesus and his companions, Moses ascended a mountain to receive God’s revelation. Elijah was the 9th century BCE prophet who specialized in speaking truth to power. Both Jesus and his mentor, John the Baptist, were considered reincarnations of Elijah.

Jesus “conversing” with Moses and Elijah represents the conviction of the early church that a strong continuity existed between the Jewish Testament’s “old story” and the new one embodied in the Enlightened Jesus.

Accordingly, Jesus was the new liberating Moses. His law of love and compassion epitomized the fulfillment of Sinai’s covenant. Jesus was the new courageous Elijah – uncompromising in his siding with the poor – the widows, orphans, and immigrants.

As both the new Moses and Elijah reincarnated, the transfigured and enlightened Jesus insists on the indispensability of activism informed by transforming spirituality. And he does so in the face of acute knowledge about his fast-approaching premature death. (Jesus references that in the concluding words in today’s gospel episode: “Tell no one of this vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”)

What can all of that mean for us today – on this second Sunday in Lent? I think it means:

• We have to learn from Indian masters and the East in general about the importance of seeking enlightenment through cultivation of the interior life. There’s a “division of labor” among the world’s Great Religious Traditions. India’s contribution about spirituality is far better developed than the West’s and Christianity’s. The Enlightened Jesus (fresh from his own trip to India) calls us to daily meditation this Lent. There’s no other way to enlightenment.
• At the same time, Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah highlights Christianity’s part in the global division of humanity’s search for the divine. Side with the poor; take on their cause as your own. Do what you can (by way of phone calls, contributions, lobbying, and teaching) to stop the deportation of immigrants, to restore food stamps and unemployment benefits for the hungry and jobless – to see the world from the margins and periphery. The message is something like that.
• Finally, Jesus’ ever-present awareness of “the prophet script” requiring his own early death reminds us that the work of following our Master can never stop – there’s no retirement from it. The proximity or remoteness of death offers no excuse to relax.

Working without ceasing to change ourselves and the world is the very purpose of life. Jesus’ transfiguration, I believe, suggests all of that.

Vipassana Reflections (Dec. 4-15, 2013): Alur, Karnataka State, India

dhamma_paphulla_vipassana

Here are 18 little reflections on the 10 day meditation retreat I finished about a week ago. It was extremely intense — a real immersion experience both in meditation and in Indian culture. The living circumstances and diet were Spartan. No talking or even eye contact for 10 days. No cell phones or computers, newspapers or TV. We meditated for 10 hours each day using a method that will be explained below. It was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity. India is wonderful!

I
“Arrival”

Here at last.
This is what brought me to India, I’m convinced.
But how did I get here?
Did I die?
I can’t remember doing that
Or how.
I recall saying goodbye to my loved ones – a wonderful hug from Maggie,
A goodbye kiss from Peggy . . . .
“May you find what you’re looking for,”
She whispered.
“I think you already have.”
So here I am – dead to the world.
Is this what heaven is like?
Or am I in hell or in prison?
I’m determined to find heaven here,
And wherever I land
From now on . . . .

II
“The Vipassana Community”

So many people here,
(about 80 I’d guess)
Young, old, men, women,
Tall, short, slim, heavy,
All but 5 of us brown,
All seeking God.
I am not alone.

III
“The Setting”

It’s quiet here.
Green, brown and dusty,
Run-down, like India,
And very slow.
But there’s a well-kept garden space,
In front of the Meditation Hall.
No golf course beauty though
Or slick railings, winding staircases or polished floors.
Instead there are large patches of dirt,
Stoney paths, chirping birds,
Blood-thirsty mosquitoes,
And sunshine all around.

IV
“Where I Sleep”

I sleep in one of the “Gents Dormitories,”
In bed # 22.
Fifteen cots, each two feet apart.
The beds are pieces of slate,
With a mattress on top, just 2 inches thick,
And a small hard pillow.
A piece of canvas suspended from a rod
Separates each bed.
But nothing filters
The farting, snoring, throat-clearing, belching, spitting, coughing and sneezing.
Still, we somehow manage to sleep
From 9:30 till 4:00.
Already by 3:30
Alarms go off.
Fluorescent tubes ignite.
The farting and throat-clearing begins in earnest,
And the race to the outdoor washstands.
By 4:30 we’re in the meditation hall.
Following our breathing – till 6:30.

V
“Be Happy”

“Be Happy”
That’s the mantram here.
Every notice ends with those words:
“Be Happy!”
It’s a strange, forbidden thought for me
Who fears happiness,
(I’ve been told)
Who’s blind to the happiness already bestowed
Here,
And who longs for the pains of hell.
What if I realized heaven is indeed already mine,
Surrendered to it,
Luxuriated in my body, mind and spirit,
And spurned the hell
The saints have sold me?
What then?
Would I actually see God?
Why this terror before heaven all around?

VI
“The Reason for Unhappiness – and Its Cure”

All life is suffering
Says the Buddha.
But why?
What’s the cause?
Gotama went deep inside
To find out.
It’s because of craving,
He discovered.
Senses encounter sense objects.
Attachments and aversions form.
When inevitably thwarted
Suffering results.
To overcome suffering,
Simply detach!
Become a dispassionate watcher of sensations
Pleasant and unpleasant,
Knowing that each
Is governed by
The Universal Law of Impermanence.
“This too will pass”
Is the salvific mantram.
“I am the Happiest of mortals,”
the Enlightened, Unattached Buddha insisted.

VII
“Where I Eat”

Our mess hall has red concrete floors.
We eat on narrow shelves
Each facing a dingy white wall
Whose Scotch Tape wounds
Cry out for soap or paint.
Thousands have sat here before us
Clattering teaspoons
On stainless steel plates.
Rice and dal
And a sweet thick drink
I can’t identify.
No one speaks or makes eye contact.
Afterwards
We line up to wash our cups and plates
At stone pilas.
Then one by one
We melt back into the darkness
Whence we came
Like moths seeking light.

VIII
“The Menu”

Breakfast
Upma (millet mush)
Or biryani rice
Sprouts
Idles (twice)
Pickled green peppers (available at every meal)
Chai

Lunch:
White rice
Biryani rice
Iragi balls (black millet)
Dal
Chapattis
Sliced cucumbers
2 vegetables: green beans, diced beets, squash, okra, or bitter gourd
Sauce: spinach, tomato and onion,
Buttermilk

Supper/Snack:
Fruit (one piece): watermelon, papaya, or banana
Salted and peppered “puffed rice” with peanuts and cilantro
Chai

IX
“Take Things Hard”

I love living like this
(My kids will laugh)
When I was a Columban
The motto was
“Take things hard.”
I bought into that,
I guess,
And still do.
I like the predictable daily routine,
The rock-hard bed,
Cold “showers” from a bucket,
The same meals repeated.
But time to think,
And meditate
And pray.
What more could I ask?
(Well, maybe not the cold showers.)

X
“How to Meditate”

“Narrow your focus,”
The teacher said,
“To the triangle
Whose base is your upper lip,
With its apex, the top of your nose.
Now do nothing
But breathe.
Just observe your natural breath
For 15 hours.
That’s step one.”

“Step 2 is to spend 10 hours
Focusing on sensations
In the same triangular space –
An itch, a pain, a tingling, throbbing – anything.
Work diligently, ardently, patiently.
This was the Buddha’s path
To enlightenment and liberation,”
The teacher advised.
“It can be yours as well
If you follow his technique.
Doing so, you are bound to succeed,
Bound to succeed.”

“Step 3 is to narrow focus still further.
The triangle shrinks.
Its base remains your upper lip.
But its apex becomes the bottom of your nostrils.
Focus on that mustache area.
Identify the feelings there,
And contemplate it – for 10 hours.”

Now you’re ready for Vipassana itself.
The word means “seeing things as they are,
Not as you want them to be.”
You scan your body
From head to toe
For changing sensations,
For 5 hours in the morning
And 4 in the afternoon.
The point is
To experience life’s impermanence
Where it cannot be denied
Within the framework of your own body,
And so be liberated
From cravings and aversions.
Which like all bodily sensations
Always pass.
Do that for 65 hours.

XI
“The Lotus Position”

The lotus position
Is killing me.
After 15 minutes
The fronts of my thighs
Are throbbing uncontrollably
Like waves on a rough sea
I can actually see the turbulent ripples.
And I still have 45 minutes
(Sometimes and hour and 45 minutes!)
To go!
Towards the end,
Each 60 seconds seems like an hour.
Is this what I must do
For the rest of my life
To achieve enlightenment?
“It’s not about torturing yourself,”
The teacher tells me.
“It’s about self-discipline,
And purification of mind.”
I review my life:
For 16 years I’ve gotten up each day at 4:45
For half an hour of meditation.
For 25 years
I’ve run 4 miles every morning
In cold and snow, heat and rain.
“No pain, no gain,” I’ve always believed.
Then a half hour of spiritual reading.
Three vegetarian meals
When I’d rather eat meat.
Another half hour of meditation at night.
What I need is not more pain.
What I need is the Buddha’s understanding
That the pain already here
And the abundant joy
Are both temporary
Subject to the universal law of impermanence
And destined to pass.
Don’t be attached
To either pain or pleasure.
That’s the lesson
And the purification of mind
My teacher was talking about.
But pardon me;
I’m using a chair.

XIi
“I Hate Vipassana”

It’s day four of our course.
During the last half hour of morning meditation (4:30-6:30)
Something snapped.
I felt like screaming,
“This is just bullshit!”
The chanting had started,
Making it impossible for me
To concentrate on my body scan.
All of a sudden,
I hated everything:
India, Indians, Vipassana Meditation, the chanting,
My hard bed
The food
That’s making me gag.
I don’t understand Vipassana!
Yes, I know it’s about
Facing up to life’ impermanence.
But how many times can you survey your body
For changing sensations
Without screaming about bullshit –
From sheer boredom?
It’s a good thing I still have nearly a week
To recover,
Make sense of this,
And find heaven
Here.

XIII
“I Love Vipassana”

The crisis passed
As quickly as it had come.
This morning
After 3 hours
Of fruitless, distracted, infuriating “meditation,”
A conference with our dour, laconic teacher
Helped me see. . . .
He spoke of the importance of posture
For disciplining the mind.
He asked about mine.
“No problem,” I said,
“I’m old,
I don’t do the lotus position;
I sit in a chair.”
“Hmm . . .” was his pitiless response.
Chastened,
I adopted the lotus configuration
For the next hour.
My legs absolutely throbbed.
At one point
I couldn’t tell my right from my left.
But then I saw:
The Buddha based everything,
I realized,
On what was certain,
From the experience of his own body.
Since that body perfectly mirrored
The entire universe,
And the laws of nature,
Reading it
Was better than reading a whole library of books.
So scanning the body
From crown to toe
Is like journeying among the planets,
Like a history lesson,
Like a review of my own life.
Bodily sensations
Pleasant and painful
Were like all the crises of life
Like all its joys – destined to pass.
The point is however
To awaken the body completely,
To make every single cell
Sensational.
And to do the same
With every moment of life.
“Just observe it all objectively
With perfect equanimity,
Without craving or aversion
Everything will soon pass,”
The teacher said.
“Everything is changing,
Changing
Changing.”
I can hardly wait for this afternoon’s
4 hours of “work.”

XIV
“A Meditation High”

This afternoon
December 11 , 2013
At 2:15
I had a unique experience – for me.
(My teacher would later tell me it’s quite common.)
During the last 15 minutes of meditation (1:00-2:30)
I had been sweeping through
My Vipassana survey of my body,
And had done so quickly
Perhaps 6 times in a row.
I stopped.
And all of a sudden
My entire body was tingling
From head to toe
In mild vibration.
I felt my body was filled with light.
The vibration continued for 15 minutes.
This, I believe,
Was the experience
Of the “Inner body,”
The immanence of the divine
That Eckhart Tolle describes
In The Power of Now.
My Indian teacher however
Warns
Not to treat such experiences
With any more preference
Than dryness, distraction or frustration.
All – the pleasant and the unpleasant –
Are merely sensations.
The point of Vipassana is
To treat all sensations the same:
“With perfect equanimity.”
It’s the nature
Of both pleasant
And unpleasant sensations
In meditation
And in life
To arise and then subside.
It’s fatal to crave and form attachment to the pleasant
And to fear and cultivate aversions to the unpleasant.
(Still, the experience was nice!)

XV
“Outta Gas – again!”

Today – the 7th of the course—towards the end
Of our 7th hour of meditation
(with 3 ½ to go)
I just ran out of gas.
My back ached.
I couldn’t bring myself
To scan my body even one more time,
“From the top of your head, to the tips of your toes;
From the tips of your toes
To the top of your head.”
And then those aversions kicked in again –
To meditation, Indian accents,
Endless translations into Kanada and Pali
And our teacher’s chanting
In that artificially deep voice,
With the weird tones, melodies and cadences
I don’t understand.
Then I realized
My aversions are the point.
It’s sensations like this I’m supposed to identify
And observe objectively.
Life is full of them,
And they are merely feelings – at least until I own them
(as I mistakenly have done again!),
Making them mine
And creating new “samskaras”
(Negative behavior patterns)
In the process.
“Just observe the sensations,
The teacher intoned.
View them objectively
With equanimity
And patience.
Like all sensations,
They will arise
And then disappear.
Don’t attach to them.”
Lesson learned . . .
For now.

XVI
“The Problem with Pleasure”

My teacher says that
Pleasure is good
When it’s shared with others:
A good meal with friends
A game of golf with my sons. . .
But not when it’s sought
For its own sake,
Especially in isolation
(Drinking alone,
That bowl of ice cream for a midnight snack).
Those sorts of “pleasures”
Give rise to craving
And attachment
Which the Buddha teaches are the causes of unhappiness.
I’m afraid all of that is true.
My experience shows:
Unsought pleasures
Have filled my life to overflowing.
The pleasures I’ve sought – for me –
Have been the problem:
Craving when they’re absent,
Disappointment when over.
And then there are those samskaras . . .
So give others pleasure in abundance.
And let life shower you with gifts unsought.
(It always will.)
Otherwise, live simply
Your cup will overflow
Even if nothing extraordinarily delightful
Ever happens again.

XVII
“Self-Denial”

All my life
It’s been preached to me,
“Deny yourself.”
And what a burden it’s been!
Now I see
That responding (not reacting) to impulses
Is intimately connected to
The Universal law of Impermanence
And to my anger and defensiveness.
Impulses are impulses
Whether to take that 2nd piece of cake
Or to make a smart retort.
As sensations they arise and pass away.
Recognizing self-indulgence
As a passing impulse
Helps me identify angry sensations
As impulses too –
To be recognized
And given time to pass –
In order to escape misery.

XVIII
“Conclusion”

This has been
A 10 day
100 hour Meditation
On the Universal Law of Impermanence.
(I.e. on reality’s changing nature
As events constantly rise and pass away),
On the need to face
And accept
The present moment
As it is
and not
As we would like it to be,
With equanimity and calmness.
It has been about
Eradicating (uprooting)
The causes of unhappiness
Located in the sensations
Our bodies constantly produce
As our senses meet
Sense objects.
Eradication happens when
We don’t react or become attached to such sensations,
But simply observe them
With heightened awareness –
Objectively, calmly,
Equanimously.
To accomplish that feat,
We must practice
An hour of mediation
Each morning and evening
Scanning our bodies
“from the top of our heads
To the tip of our toes”
And back,
This establishes a pattern
(Based on experience)
For facing the vicissitudes of daily life
Which is constantly
Changing,
Changing,
Changing.
Remember:
The two wings of the Vipassana bird are
Awareness and
Equanimity.

Guest Blog: My Daughter Maggie’s Report on India

Rickshaw

Today marks our 2-week anniversary in India and it feels like our sabbatical experience has really begun in earnest. As expected, India is a radical departure from the elegant Tuscan countryside we so enjoyed for the last two months. But it’s exciting to be here! India is absolutely teeming with life. Kerry and I are already firing on more cylinders. And the kids are thriving–marveling at the cultural kaleidoscope and relishing inter-generational living (with my parents just downstairs).

It’s not perfect, of course. We miss some creature comforts; but we’re hammering out solutions every day. If you’ve checked our blog lately, you know that we don’t love the house we’ve ended up in. Also, our ears are ringing from the constant street noise. This weekend we took a trip out-of-town, and the silence was actually unnerving. Finally, the kids brought lice(!) home after just one week at school, which was appalling. (And of course Kerry and I did not escape unscathed). All five of us did a round of medical shampoo last week, and we’ll do the second round tomorrow to catch the remaining eggs that will have hatched. But Oscar is still itching his scalp and saying he has “ants in his hair,” so the situation is definitely not resolved. The crazy thing is, Indians don’t seem to think lice is a big deal at all; no need to even keep the kids home from school! We’re going to move to braids every day for Eva. And hopefully get some kind of preventative spray shipped to us from home that we can spray on their heads every day before school for the next six months!

Kerry and I started a daily Mysore-style yoga class last week at a shala called Yoga Indea, and it’s everything we hoped for. Our teacher, Pratima, is very strict in an exhilarating way. She scolds us when something is not just right. And she’s constantly telling us to “feel the work.” Kerry is doing great, even though it’s all so foreign to his body. And this is definitely the most serious and frequent yoga I’ve ever done. Most importantly, we’re both moved by the opportunity to engage in this project together, side-by-side. Our class meets each weekday morning from 11:15-12:15. Afterwards, we stop by the coconut stand for some electrolyte-rich coconut water, and then head over to the kids’ school to pick them up. It’s been really lovely so far. And how great that it’s only just beginning!

We are all in near-constant awe as we walk the streets of Mysore. As time passes, I think we’ll stop noticing how “other” this all is. But for now, here’s a little taste of some things that have grabbed our attention as we move about town:
-Children playing on an improvised swing hanging from scaffolding; the swing seat was made of a bound pile of recycled diaper boxes.
-A whole valley full of white sheets and towels drying on lines–stretching over at least a full city block. (In theory, air-drying clothes is kind of romantic. But not on the side of a busy road in a polluted city).
-Our security guard burning (presumably our) trash on the side of the road, not 50 feet from our front gate.
-An incredible funeral procession that started in front of the children’s school and passed right by our house. In it, a dead body, clothed in a loincloth, sat upright, tied to a throne, covered by a canopy of hundreds of yellow marigolds. The throne rested on a litter, carried by four men. A group of mourners encircled the body, wailing and moaning with a somber drumbeat accompaniment. After about 15 minutes, the procession began to move around the neighborhood before heading across town to the burial ground. (Kerry commented that the tradition couldn’t be great for public health).
-I don’t think we’ve seen a single stop sign here. Instead, every vehicle (double or triple) honks at every intersection; this explains a lot of the noise pollution.
-There are so many animals roaming the streets, especially cows. Someone told my mother that cows are Mysore’s “speed bumps.” That’s actually quite lovely, isn’t it?
-Because there are so many animals, it is imperative to walk with your eyes down at all times to navigate the animal dung, which is everywhere. (This even though Mysore is India’s second cleanest city).
-Rickshaws are our main mode of transportation and the children think they’re pretty great. They’re not at all safe, of course. They’re open on both sides and they weave in and out of traffic, tailgate to the extreme and barrel the wrong way down one-way streets without hesitation. They’re designed for two adults to fit very comfortably. And we can technically fit our whole immediate family in one if the boys sit on our laps. Even that seems like a bit of a stretch to us. But our jaws drop regularly when we pass rickshaws literally dripping with people. 4 adults. Even 5 adults. 10 children. Crazy.
-Everyone seems to litter here, without a second thought. It’s pretty mind-blowing, since littering feels unthinkable in the United States.
-Mysore’s world-famous Dasara festival just ended. We mostly avoided the celebratory events because of the crowds. But we attended a purportedly “less-crowded” dress rehearsal of the Torchlight Parade one night. We found ourselves in a shocking crush of people trying to push through a narrow gate into the stadium where the parade would take place. A line would have worked well, but instead it was a stampede. It’s not at all hard to imagine the fatal scene on the bridge in northern India last week. Definitely not a situation we’re hoping to repeat–especially with kids.

Eva turns five next month. It’s a big birthday and we wish she felt more settled socially. She has made a friend at school from Ohio, and she’s happy about that. But she’s generally (and understandably) a little intimidated by the language gap. (As a side-note, recently Oscar refused to ask an Indian waiter for more water. “I don’t speak Spanish!” he insisted). But back to Eva. She really misses the community and sense of belonging she feels at home. She vacillates between saying she wants to go home immediately, (because she misses ALL her friends), and wishing we could stay in India forever (because it’s so exciting and colorful here!) All things tolled, this is not actually a bad mental place for her to be in right now. But if anyone out there feels moved to send a birthday card her way in the next week or so, I know she would really appreciate it. Little connections to home feel extra-important while we’re still getting settled here. Our new address is:

The Lehnerd-Reilly Family
No. 2639/1, II Main, Valmiki Road
V.V. Mohalla
Mysore, Karnataka 570002
India

Thanks so much to everyone who’s keeping us in your thoughts. We’re happy to report that all is well and we’re on our way to creating a full life here. Kerry made a rather profound “sabbatical observation” just the other day: “People without kids don’t understand that ‘doing nothing’ is possibly doing too much.” And so we keep going.

Love,
Maggie, Kerry, Eva, Oscar and Orlando

Why Am I Here in India? (Sunday Homily)

Religion in India

Readings for 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 KGS 5: 14-17; PS 98: 1-4; 2TM 2”8-13; LK 17: 11-19. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/101313.cfm

My wife and I have been in India now for six weeks. Peggy’s working as a Fulbright researcher at the University of Mysore here in the country’s south. I’m here . . . I’m only now realizing why.

To tell the truth, I had come to India more or less reluctantly. I mean since retirement I had traveled a great deal including six months in Costa Rica, five months in South Africa, and now the prospect of 4 ½ months here in India. So perhaps understandably, I was feeling tired of living out of a suitcase.

I wondered then, why Life, why life’s circumstances had brought me here to what many consider the “Soul of the World” – an ancient culture with deep, deep spiritual roots?

I thought about that for a long time. Then I concluded that the opportunity here is absolutely golden for spiritual growth.

That’s why I’m here then, I concluded. Life is telling me I need to grow and break away from patterns of living and thought that have unconsciously become too comfortable and stifling.

And what resources there are in India for assisting in that project! There are spiritual masters here, teachers of meditation and yoga. (For example, Sunday I have an appointment with a Past Life Review teacher.)

In addition, Indian food (not my favorite) challenges me to adjust my palate. Cows walk the streets. Dress is different as well. Music too seems completely foreign (but delightful), as Peggy and I have discovered in attending a kind of “Indian Woodstock” festival of traditional Indian chanting, drumming, flute and violin playing during the two-week festival of the god Ganesh. And the traffic. . . . I’ve never seen anything as wild. No rules at all that I can see. I doubt if I could learn to drive here.

All of this is forcing me to expand my horizons and break away from what spiritual masters here call “samskaras” – habitual patterns of perceiving, thinking and living.

That’s what spiritual masters do for a living – they challenge old ways of thinking. It’s what the prophet Elisha did in this morning’s first reading, and what Jesus does in today’s gospel selection. Both readings reveal God’s love for those our cultural norms classify as strange and even evil.

Our first reading centralizes the prophet, Elisha, who worked in Samaria for 60 years in the 9th century BCE. That, of course, was a full 100 years or more before Samaritans emerged as Israel’s bête noir.

Nonetheless, it is true that Naaman may have been even more detestable to Elisha’s contemporaries than Samaritans eventually became to the Jews. That’s because Naaman was a captain in the army of the King of Aram who at the very time of the officer’s cure was attacking Elisha’s homeland. Elisha’s cure of Naaman would be like extending free healthcare to a known al-Qaeda “terrorist” today.

In other words, Naaman is a foreigner and an enemy of Elisha’s people. On top of that he’s a leper, which supposedly further marks him as an object of God’s disfavor. Despite all these disqualifications, the greatest prophet in Israel cures him.

The narrative’s point: there is indeed only one God, and that God loves everyone, even our designated enemies. That was a stretch for the people of Elisha’s time. It’s a stretch for us.

Still, the point is picked up in today’s responsorial psalm. Remember the refrain we sang together this morning: “The Lord has revealed to all the nations his saving power.” According to the psalmist, then, God is not tied to one land. God’s saving power is evident in every place on earth. As the psalmist put it, “All the ends of the earth have seen God’s salvation.”

God belongs to everyone. Everyone belongs to God.

By Jesus’ time, nearly 800 years after Naaman’s cure, Israel still wasn’t buying that message. In fact, they had narrowed God’s presence to particular locations within the land of Israel. Orthodox Jews believed God was present on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and could only be really worshipped in the Temple there. Samaritans, on the other hand, believed that the place to worship Yahweh was on Mt. Gerizim, where they said Abraham had nearly sacrificed his son, Isaac.

In other words, Samaritans embodied a sectarian battle among the descendants of Abraham over where to worship God – was it on the Temple Mount or on Mount Gerizim?

Jesus completely ignores the debate. He cures a Samaritan along with nine other lepers – presumably all Jews.

The story is simple: the lepers approach Jesus. He tells them to “show yourselves to the priests.” It’s not clear what Jesus had in mind. Some say there was a law requiring cured lepers to be certified by the priests. Others say Jesus’ intention was to confront the priests, to assert his identity (as his mentor, John the Baptist had done) as the people’s high priest.

In any case, the lepers leave in search of the priests, and on the way are cured. As we well know, only the Samaritan leper returns to thank Jesus. Why? Was it that the priests had persuaded the others not to return, since they were convinced that Jesus was possessed?

On the other hand, the priests would probably have refused to see the Samaritan, because of their deep prejudice.

So the Samaritan turns out to be the hero of the story, not the priests or those who listen to them. Just like Naaman, the one in the story most open to God was the character most alienated from reigning cultural norms.

And that brings me back to my opening point – to my hopes about India. Recently I was reading an article by an Indian scholar of religion who identified Jesus as an Indian yogi. The author suggested that the reason the priests and the people of Jesus’ time and culture could not understand him was that his approach to life and God was completely alien to them.

It was a mystical philosophy more akin to the Far East – to India – than to Middle Eastern Palestine. Put briefly Jesus’ mystical philosophy can be summarized in the words “Aham Sarvum! Sarvum Aham!” –“I AM ALL. ALL is ME.” In fact, Jesus’ basic approach can be summarized as follows:

1. There is a spark of the divine within every human being.
2. That spark can be realized, i.e. energize every aspect of our lives in the here and now.
3. It is the purpose of life to live from that place of divine presence.
4. Once we do so, we will recognize God’s presence in every human being and in all of creation.

Or as John the Evangelist has Jesus say:

1. “I am in the father, and the father in me.” [John 14.10]
2. “I am in my father, and ye in me, and I in you.” [John 14.20]
3. “I and my Father are One.” [John 10.30]

In other words, the guru (Jesus), the disciple, and God are all One. Separation of God and Her creation is nothing but illusion (MAYA). ALL IS ONE.

All of this confirms for me what I’ve learned from Eknath Easwaran, my Indian teacher of meditation over the last 15 years: at their summit all the world’s Great Religions come together in the mystical vision just articulated.

If all of this is true, what does all of this mean for us today? I think this at least:

• There are many ways to understand God.
• Sectarianism is foreign to the Divine Reality.
• God loves our mortal enemies and performs miracles on their behalf just as God did in the example of Naaman.
• More specifically, God loves al-Qaeda fighters and the ones we call “terrorists” just as much as (S)he does us. Our enemies represent God’s presence and so do we. We should treat them as though this were true.
• God loves those we classify as unclean, unworthy, ungodly, and untouchable.
• More specifically, God loves people with AIDS; God loves the foreigner, the outcast. They represent the presence of God and so do we. And because of our tendency to reject them, they are somehow closer to God than we are.
• It’s good to step outside the reach of our culture’s categories, at least once in a while.

Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic: Reflections on a Reunion of Former Priests

806

The Catholic Church is a sinking ship. So are its orders of priests and nuns. The “reforms” presaged by the election of Pope Francis are like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. They’re busy work for those whom history has rendered superfluous.

Similarly, for all the good will behind them, efforts at reforming orders, congregations and societies of priests and religious are doomed from the start. Typically they endorse the hierarchy’s negligence by failing to address the substantive causes of the crises that afflict the sinking church and its semi-submerged sub-organizations.

These are the conclusions I drew after attending a joyous reunion of priests and former priests (and their wives) belonging to the Society of St. Columban. That’s the Irish-founded missionary group I joined in 1954 (when I entered the minor seminary at the age of 14) and which I left in 1976. I had been ordained in 1966 (ordination photo above — taken by my classmate, Tom Shaugnessy).

The reunion took place in Bristol, Rhode Island over a three-day period just last week (July 21st-23rd). It was great getting together with friends, colleagues, teachers, former priests and their spouses. It was wonderful to see so many of my one-time missionary friends with their beautiful wives from Ireland as well as Japan, Korea, Chile and other “fields afar” (as the title of one missionary magazine used to put it). Several men’s spouses were former nuns. I can only imagine the wonderful love stories each of those couples might tell.

As with all reunions, there were the usual reminiscences from years long past. We made wisecracks about how all of us have aged, and observations about how quickly time has flown. There was catching up to do about retirement, children, grandchildren, illnesses, deaths of former colleagues, and plans for our declining years – and always in a light-hearted spirit. We even went for a cruise around the Newport Harbor. Great fun!

On the final day, things turned more serious. The newly-elected Regional Director of the Columbans spoke to us about the Society of St. Columban today. After introducing himself, this comparative youngster of 51 years informed his appreciative audience of recent efforts to update the Society in the face of zero vocations over the last number of years in Ireland, the U.S., England, and Australia. The situation is aggravated by the advancing ages of the 400 or so priests who remain in the Society – so many of them over the age of 75.

In response, we were told, the Columbans have made efforts at recruiting seminarians from the “mission” territories. As a result, Columban ordinations have taken place in the Pacific Rim – in Korea, Fiji, the Philippines, and also in Latin America. The Society’s directorate has changed accordingly. With its headquarters now located in Hong Kong instead of Ireland, the current directing council is a rainbow blend of Irish, Latin American, and Philippine “superiors.” Additionally lay associates, both men and women have become more prominent in the Columban scheme of things.

Besides such developments, there have been efforts at dialog with Muslims, especially in Pakistan and the Philippines. Social justice for the poor and ecological concerns have become central themes of documents recently authored by Society “chapters” or long-range planning sessions. Above all continued emphasis on brotherly love and legendary Columban hospitality continue as hallmarks of this group about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding as the “Maynooth Mission to China” in 1918. (“Maynooth” was the name of the Irish National Seminary back then.) With China now open, Columbans are currently making efforts to reintroduce themselves into that continent-sized country thus reclaiming the Society’s original focus.

All of that seemed encouraging. Such updating demonstrates the good will, generosity and continued vitality of men and women still intent on doing good in the world and serving the God their faith envisions. Columbans remain for me the most inspiring community of its kind I’ve ever known.

However questions surfaced for me about the reforms just mentioned. And unfortunately there was little time to raise – much less probe – them during the discussion period that followed the new Regional Director’s fine presentation. For instance:

• What does it mean that Pacific Rim Catholics are more open to the priesthood and mission than Europeans and North Americans? Is faith stronger in the former colonies? Are candidates European wannabes? Or has a pre-Vatican II brand of Christianity been introduced in the Pacific Rim that avoids the crises of the celibate priesthood that emerged following that historic Council whose 50th anniversary we’re currently celebrating?
• Does the incorporation of women and laymen as associates give them equal voice and vote in Society matters? Will there soon be a woman Superior General governing the Society of St. Columban?
• What is the point of Columban-Muslim dialog? Is it conversion of the Muslim dialog partners? Is it enrichment of all conversation participants? Is it collaboration and cooperation? If so, what is the shared project?
• For that matter, what’s the point of missionary work itself? After all, Vatican II recognized the value in God’s eyes of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and other faiths. Are missionaries still trying to convert faithful people whose culture seems so distant from a Christianity so long and fatally associated with empire and exploitation?
• What specifically are Columbans doing about ecology and care for the planet? It’s easy for organizations nowadays to claim “green” commitment, but where does the rubber meet the road? Are Columbans encouraging vegetarianism as spiritual and ecological discipline? Are they cutting back on air-conditioning? Are they mandating that their cars be hybrids or have targeted miles-per-gallon ranges? Are they mounting campaigns focused on global warming and the introduction of genetically modified seeds in Latin America and Asia?

Those are some key questions that necessarily remained un-discussed at our Columban reunion. But I did get the opportunity to pose one whose answer led me to draw the conclusions I shared at the beginning – about the Columbans, organizations like them, and the Catholic Church itself being sinking ships. I asked:

• The great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, has observed that the Holy Eucharist is constitutive of the church. Without Mass, he said, there simply can be no church. Therefore it is positively sinful on the part of church leadership to deprive Catholics of Eucharist because of an artificial priest shortage caused by blind commitment to mandatory celibacy and an all-male clergy. What are the Columbans doing to lobby for fundamental change in the church to make the Eucharist more available to the communities Columbans serve?

Understandably, the Regional Director gave the expected answer – the only one possible, I think. “Of course,” he said, “where 2 or 3 Columbans get together those questions are always discussed. However, we’re such a small and relatively insignificant organization, we have so little clout. So, no, we haven’t discussed petitions or protests on those matters.”

In other words, the sin of mandatory celibacy for priests, the sin of an all-male clergy will continue until the Vatican repents. But even Francis I is not about to don sack cloth and ashes in that regard.

That institutional obstinacy was underlined for me in the Mass that concluded our magnificent reunion. Two male priests stood before a congregation of “priests forever” – the latter adopting subservient positions in the pews instead of concelebrating. No woman had any role in the Mass. Additionally, the recently mandated pre-Vatican II Latinisms reminded me that the church is actually regressing:

• “Consubstantial” (instead of “one in being”)
• “And with thy spirit” (rather than “also with you”)
• “Shed for you and for many” (not “all”)
• “It is right and just” (instead of “fitting”)
• “Come under my roof” (rather than “receive you”)

The Latinisms are not trivial. They represent subtle messages that the signature liturgical reform of Vatican II is over. In the context of the Columban reunion, they demonstrated how hemmed in good people are by decisions from above.

Talk about rearranging deck chairs . . . . I could almost hear the water bursting through the Ship’s gaping hull.