Saturday, July 11, 2009


Truly, God and the whole world make it impossible for a man [sic] to find true consolation who seeks his consolation in created things. But he who would in created things love God alone, and who would love created things only in God, he would find true, just and unchanging consolation everywhere. – Meister Eckhart

Discernment is perceiving and responding to reality as it is “in God,” rather than to an illusion or projection. To love created things, including myself, “in God” is to love them as they are, and not as I want them to be. It is from within this stance of acceptance that we find the freedom to respond to reality in ways that are creative and life-giving. When we are, as Gerald May puts it, “in love” in this way, we find consolation everywhere, and God’s will is discovered with each breath, in each moment.

Discernment flows from this place of spacious, gratuitous, acceptance. Too often, I forget this and think that I have to “figure out” what God wants me to do so that God will be pleased with me, or so that I can manipulate God into fulfilling my desire. But discernment flows from receiving the gift already given, from satiety overflowing into life as we are given to desire as God desires, loving all things in God.

I take it that this is what William Barry means when, quoting John Macmurray, he states that “the universe is the one action of God, informed by one intention,” and that God has revealed that intention. God does not play hide and seek with us, or taunt us with guessing games. God’s consolation is everywhere revealed when we are “in love.”

When I remember this, I can let go the idea that if I only do X, Y, and Z God’s intention will be revealed. It already has been revealed. The question is whether or not I am ready and willing to perceive it. God’s one action and intention, as Barry points out, involves the work of human freedom. Discernment is the work of two freedoms, divine and human, and I can choose to become willing to perceive and participate in God’s intention, or not.

Our capacity to perceive God’s intention is a function of how free we are with respect to the present moment. Barry speaks of this in terms of our willingness to accept the past and to surrender to the future. I would prefer to speak of “consent” rather than “surrender,” but his point is well taken. If I am captive to the past or afraid of the future, willfully trying to control or manipulate my experience of reality, I will not be free to hear the Word that is being spoken in the present.

Contemplative awareness is the state of being free to respond to reality as it is, here and now. Such awareness is the “place” where discernment happens. We can best assist others with discernment by locating ourselves in this place so as to be available to listen to God with them. This sometimes requires attending to the ways in which we cling to the past or resist the future, so as to let them go. In any case, discernment is always about living in reality and responding to it in freedom and with compassion.

My prayer for our bishops and deputies gathered in General Convention is that their decisions emerge from discernment, and not simply debate; and that their discernment be rooted in freedom rather than captivity or fear. God already has revealed the divine intention in our Creation and Redemption in Christ Jesus: it is love, and love's consolation can be found everywhere. Even at General Convention!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Blocking, Holding, Releasing

A conversation yesterday reminded me that contemplative practice is about working with the fundamental spiritual energy of the universe. Holy Spirit moves in and through our spirits, and we carry this energy in our bodies, our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions. Much of contemplative practice is about opening ourselves to this energy, allowing it to flow through us rather than blocking it or clinging to it.

Blocking the flow of energy is a way of avoiding reality. Addiction is, perhaps, the primary expression of "blocking" in contemporary culture. The compulsive use of substances or activities (like work or sex) alters our awareness, dulls and narrows it, and undermines our capacity to integrate and make positive use of the experiences and feelings we seek to avoid. The relief is temporary, however, and leads ultimately to enervation and collapse, as the energy required to suppress awareness leaves one exhausted.

In my work with people recovering from addiction, they often find themselves initially overwhelmed by the energy of emotions long suppressed, but with patience they learn to become aware of the feelings and integrate them into their overall experience without having to be defined by them in a negative way. The learn to have feelings, rather than being had by them.

Holding on to emotional energy is equally problematic. We cling to anger until it becomes resentment; hold on to sadness until it becomes self-pity; become attached to our grief until it becomes despair; find ourselves defined by fears that lose specificity and become generalized anxiety. We can become attached to these feelings, holding on to them and taking our identity from them: "I am angry; I am afraid; I am sad." We become filled with their energy and are unable to make space for a more holistic response to life that holds in awareness joy as well as suffering.

Rather than blocking or holding energy, we are invited to release it. Contemplative practice is about allowing spirit in all its dimensions and expressions to come into our awareness, become integrated into our experience, and released back into the care of Holy Spirit. We do not have to defend ourselves or define ourselves over-and-against anything, but instead can simply observe and let go, observe and let go.

This is, at its heart, the teaching of Jesus on the Beatitudes: "blessed are the merciful, blessed are those who grieve" - we are blessed when we allow ourselves to be in the flow of energy, the exchange of love which is the very life of the Trinity. We don't have to block or hold "negative" feelings but can integrate them into our experience, glean what wisdom we can from them, without losing a sense of our fundamental identity as God's beloved daughters and sons.

This is "kenosis" - the self-emptying which Jesus expressed completely in his Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension - allowing Holy Spirit to flow through him without impediment. It is this capacity for "releasing" energy that allowed St. Paul to make astonishing claims such as "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." (Col. 1:24) Paul could accept and offer his experience of suffering in union with Christ's suffering for the sake of the salvation of the world. Paul could willingly make sacrifices for the building-up of Christ's body, the Church, because he did not need to defend his ego or preserve his status.

Blocking, Holding, Releasing. Becoming aware of how we impede and cooperate with the flow of Holy Spirit in the energies of our bodies and our world is one of the benefits of contemplative practice. With this awareness and the acceptance it brings, we can begin to make of our lives a free offering in service to God's mission of reconciliation and healing. "Releasing" is the shape taken by the gift of Holy Spirit in our lives. Its content is compassionate service. "Let go" and become free to love.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Becoming an "Ubuntu" People

One of the major issues facing the Episcopal Church at its General Convention is marriage equality, providing access to all of the sacraments for all of God's people. Integrity USA has created a wonderful 10-minute video that you can watch here, describing the importance of marriage equality.

Note: I was part of the team that secured initial funding from the Arcus Foundation, which made production of this video possible. And the couple from Missouri featured in the video had their civil marriage blessed at St. John's. What a joy to see the fruit of our labor!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Great Transformation

Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions provides a panoramic history of the religious breakthroughs during the period that Karl Jaspers referred to as the "Axial Age." Chronicling the period from 900 BCE to 200 CE, Armstrong writes compellingly of the experiences of suffering and transcendence that gave birth to biblical monotheism, Greek rationalism, and the great traditions of India and China.

While she occasionally succumbs to the risks of oversimplification (impossible to avoid in a narrative of this scope), Armstrong does a good job of summarizing and comparing developments across very different cultural traditions. Her treatment of each tradition on its own terms, while useful, is not what gives this book its compelling interest. Its real value lies in its invitation to see each of these traditions in terms of the others, providing a (mostly) reliable introduction to comparative religious studies.

While one can certainly disagree with this or that point in her presentation, the attempt to promote inter-religious understanding is admirable and timely. I highly recommend this book as a way to begin a conversation with and about our religious neighbors - who are now just down the street rather than continents away. At the same time, you will come away from this book thinking about your own tradition differently, seeing things about your own tradition reflected in the face of the religious "other" that you would not otherwise see.