Monthly Archives: September 2022

Earthen Vessels

Accepting Our Imperfections

Richard Rohr shares how the teachings of Thérèse of Lisieux have supported his own spiritual journey:

French Catholicism in Thérèse’s time emphasized an ideal of human perfection, but Thérèse humbly trusted her own experience and taught the spirituality of imperfection instead. Thérèse is one of my favorite saints, perhaps because I’m an Enneagram Type One. The trap for the One is self-created perfectionism, which makes us dissatisfied and disappointed by nearly everything, starting with ourselves.

Thérèse has helped me to embrace imperfection—my own and others. When her sister Céline was upset with her own faults, Thérèse instructed, “If you want to bear in peace the trial of not pleasing yourself, you will give [the Virgin Mary] a sweet home.” [1] If we pay attention even for an hour, we observe how hard it is to be “displeasing” to ourselves! Often, this is the emotional snag that sends us into terribly bad moods without even realizing the origins of these moods. To resolve this problem, Thérèse teaches us to let go of the very need to “think well of yourself” to begin with! That’s our ego talking, not God.

Worthiness is not the issue; the issue is trust and surrender. As Thérèse understood, “Jesus does not demand great actions from us but simply surrender and gratitude.” [2] Let’s resolve this once and for all: You’re not worthy! None of us are. Don’t even go down that worthiness road. It’s a game of denial and pretend. We’re all saved by grace. We’re all being loved in spite of ourselves. That’s why I can also say, “You’re all worthy!” But your worthiness has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the goodness of God.

Brené Brown, a contemporary teacher who extols the gifts of imperfection, writes:

It is in the process of embracing our imperfections that we find our truest gifts: courage, compassion, and connection. . . .

When we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our worthiness—the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging. When we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don’t fit with who we think we’re supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving. . . .

There is a line from Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” that serves as a reminder to me when . . . I’m trying to control everything and make it perfect. The line is, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” [3] . . . This line helps me remember the beauty of the cracks (and the messy house and the imperfect manuscript and the too-tight jeans). It reminds me that our imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together. Imperfectly, but together. [4]

Oh Lord, I Hate to be Humble!

A Gospel of Humility

In this talk, Richard Rohr unpacks the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9–14), showing how Jesus affirmed a spirituality of imperfection:

With this parable, Jesus invites us to struggle with the contrast between a spirituality of perfection and what I’m calling a spirituality of imperfection. Notice the beginning lines: “Then he spoke this parable, to some who trusted in themselves, that they were righteous and therefore despised others. ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector’” (Luke 18:9–10). Jesus, a consummate Jew, uses examples from his own culture and time. According to common definitions of the day, the Pharisees are the good guys and tax collectors are the bad guys. The tax collectors are those who have totally aligned with the Roman Empire, charging money to their own Jewish people, and giving it to the Empire. No one likes the tax collectors, and everyone looks up to the Pharisees. The Pharisees are simply religious people trying to obey the law, just like faithful Catholics or Bible-reading Protestants today. And as always, Jesus, with his nondual way of thinking, turns it all on its head.

“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people. Extortioners, adulterers, or even this poor tax collector here. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I possess’” (18:11–12). None of us would be so foolish as to state our spiritual credit so forthrightly, but we do feel it inside. We think: “I’m a good person. I don’t steal; I don’t cheat.” We’ve all fashioned our positive, superior self-images on why we’re right and why we’re good. In contrast, “The tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven. Instead, he beat his breast, saying ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’” Jesus said, “This man went down to his house justified—rather than the other” (18:13–14).

This repositions the whole role of religion. Didn’t most of us think that it’s all a meritocracy? I certainly did! Many religious people think that it’s all a merit badge system—all achievement, accomplishment, performance, and perfection. The good people win and the bad people lose. Of course, once we cast anything as a win-lose scenario, the irony is that everybody loses. Why can’t people see that competitive games are not the way to go?

I’m convinced that Jesus’ good news is that God’s choice is always for the excluded one. Jesus learned this from his Jewish tradition: God always chooses the rejected son, the barren woman, the people enslaved in Egypt or exiled in Babylon. It’s not a winner’s script in the Bible—it’s a loser’s script. It’s a loser’s script where, ironically, everybody wins.

More About Ripening as We Age

James Finley shares his thoughts on spiritual maturity as a form of ripening:

We ripen in holiness and spiritual fulfillment as we learn to sit in the sun of God’s mysterious, sustaining presence that energizes and guides our efforts, bringing us to realms of grace that are beyond, way beyond, anything we can achieve by our own efforts alone. . . .

The lifelong process of ripening brings about a corresponding ripening of our ability to understand the fundamentals in a wiser, peace-giving manner. . . . As a person ripens in unsayable intimacies in God, they ripen in a paradoxical wisdom. They come to understand God as a presence that protects us from nothing, even as God unexplainably sustains us in all things. This is the Mystery of the Cross that reveals whatever it means that God watches over us; it does not mean that God prevents the tragic thing, the cruel thing, the unfair thing, from happening. Rather, it means that God is intimately hidden as a kind of profound, tender sweetness that flows and carries us along in the intimate depths of the tragic thing itself—and will continue to do so in every moment of our lives up to and through death, and beyond.

As fruit ripens, it fulfills itself in reaching its full potential to nurture us and give us pleasure. We might say that, as fruit ripens, it fulfills itself in giving itself to us. In a similar way, we do not undergo the transformative process of ripening for ourselves alone, but rather that our transformed presence might be a source of nurture to others.

Then too, there is the fruit that, in remaining unharvested, falls onto the ground and dies. The lesson here is in Jesus’ words, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it brings forth fruit a hundred fold, a thousand fold” (John 12:24).

And so it is with us. As we grow old we realize that, in all we have been through, Love has been using us for its own purposes. And for this we feel immensely grateful. We know, too, that our inevitable passing away, in which we fall into the ground and die, is not the end of our ripened and transformed life. It is rather our passage into an infinite and deathless fulfillment. Saint John of the Cross [1542–1591] talks about a windfall of delight. [1] When fruit becomes very ripe, the slightest wind can cause it to fall to the ground. This is also true of us, and not just in the sense in which we learn to be undone and fulfilled in all the unexpected little blessings that come to us throughout the day. The windfall of delight pertains as well to our last breath, which we know and trust will send us falling forever into the deathless depths of God.

Eileen: I have shared this story before, but I think it can help when we are suffering and old age often has lots of that. When traveling in several countries in Europe in a wheelchair, I experienced purposefully cruel prejudice not just from skin heads, but from even obviously middle-class, middle-aged women. There were no handicapped bathrooms in those countries except the airports and McDonalds. This was thirty years ago, so hopefully this has changed. But back then handicapped people were kept inside away from public view. At one point I was feeling extremely sad and hurt when in a crowded Cathedral filled with silver and gold. My husband wanted to take photos and my son wanted to climb to the top of the dome, so they looked for a place to park me out of the crowds. We found a dark empty corner and I stayed there out of the way. They were gone a long time and I began to feel even sadder there alone. I looked around over the crowd for Jesus on the Cross, but only saw the gold tabernacle and statues and lavish decorations. Finally, I looked up behind me in the dark corner and there was a life-sized Jesus on the cross. I experienced an incredible sense of his presence and love and realized that he is with us in all our suffering and times of despair. We are never alone. And whatever anyone does to others, they do to Jesus also. Suffering is a difficult mystery of life, but there is grace for the journey, when we realize we are never alone in it. The Love of God, Jesus, is in it with us.

The Noble Task of Aging

When we LOL’s (Little Old Ladies) get together these days, we compare pains and humiliations and losses.  Not an uplifting experience, but misery does love company.  However, sometimes one of us finds some humor in our daily decay and once in a while, someone shares an experience of grace in the middle of disaster. And those who can, drive those that can’t to Doctors’ appointments and church and lunches out.  And those that cook use that talent when one of us isn’t able. Some faithfully call to check on the house-bound and others send cards so they will know they aren’t forgotten. We share pain relieving stick-ons and advice we’ve learned from experience.  Old age makes us a family, when we are loved by our children, but they can’t really understand from the inside out.  To me that’s part of our Noble Task.  In the following, Kathleen Dowling Singh writes about coming to grips with the losses and precariousness of old age.

A Noble Task

Known for her deep wisdom around death and dying, Kathleen Dowling Singh (1946–2017) also wrote about the awakening that can occur when we consciously address aging:

Opening deeply to the truth of our own aging is wise. Opening deeply to the truth of our own impermanence is wise. Although such opening may not come easily at first—we all know how the ego tends to resist vulnerability—it is important to do so if we wish to mindfully use the time remaining to us.

To live a life of an elder is to ripen into being that is more than simply elderly, more than just old. It involves ripening into clear-eyed acceptance of the way things actually exist. That ripening involves, for each of us, many difficult reckonings in the multifaceted, multidimensional understanding that everything that can be lost will be lost. . . .

Grey hair and sagginess notwithstanding, many of us still cling childishly to so much that is unreal and inessential. Many of us still cling to reputation, to imagined security, to unexamined habits of attitude and behavior, and to self-image. We have deep aversion to having all of our cherished illusions stripped away by life-in-form’s seeming indifference.

We all have reservoirs of fear, some large and some small and subtle, around entering this new terrain of unknown and mystery: our last years. What will aging to do me? To my body? To my mind? . . . Will I matter to anyone? Will I be a burden? How will I die?

We do not know. We have no clue what these years will hold for us. We have no clue what will happen tomorrow. The “moment that changed everything” usually arrives unannounced.

The only person who can answer the questions posed by the often painful challenges of aging is the person we will be in the moment we confront those circumstances. The shaping of that person into someone with greater wisdom and equanimity can begin in this moment.

For Singh, when we choose to ripen, to awaken as we age, we offer a gift to the world and future generations:

If we are to claim the last years of life as years that hold the possibility of awakening into equanimity and lightness, into the very embodiment of grace, we need to bear witness to the ripening of that possibility. Not only would it be a blessing for each of us, it would be a blessing for a world starving for such witnessing. . . .

Mindful of impermanence, the breath-by-breath arising and abiding and falling of each moment, we can remain in remembrance of our longing to exist in wisdom and love and compassion. We can remain in our intention to ripen into the spiritual maturity that is our birthright to cultivate. There is no more noble way to spend these years than to become an elder, to bear witness to the world as placeholders for peace, love, wisdom, and fearlessness.

The Prayer of Jesus

What is the Glory of God that we all fall short of? I’m pretty sure it’s the kind of Love that Jesus had for those that crucified him. “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” I have to admit, I fall short of that kind of love.

Listen carefully to John 17:20-26. Jesus prays: “I ask, not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, (that’s us) so they may all be one. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and you have loved them as you have loved me.”

Jesus asks God for us, and all who claim to follow Jesus, to be completely one, so the world will know that God loves us all just as much as God loves Jesus. That means God loves every single one of us: bitter old curmudgeons, young know-it-alls, the middle-aged tempted to stray, Republicans and Democrats, unquestioning believers and loyal, but doubting Thomases, the pure of heart and those addicted to sin, the victims and the criminals. Nobody deserves it. All fall short of the glory of God’s unconditional love.  So, we don’t get to get to feed our egos by looking down on anybody. It’s time to do some soul searching on why we Christians all across the world are fighting bitterly on almost everything. The world is supposed to know we are Christians by our love for one another, so they will want to follow Jesus. We obviously are missing the mark. But how in the heck, can we begin to love one another enough to become one.  I’m not sure that can happen with only a hand me down intellectual faith. I suspect it also takes first-hand experiences of that life changing love of God to open us to God’s Spirit inside us. We are born with different strengths and weaknesses. So the timing of our spiritual journeys is different. There are no magic formulas.  My Julian was a good person, but his strength was logic and he focused on what he could see and touch. So, he was eighty fighting the second round of lung cancer when he finally could let go of the limits of logic and the physical world that he could see. But then he literally danced with joy on his walker listening to “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” He died knowing that love first- hand.
 So, here’s a challenge for all of us, including illogical fly by the seat of my feelings me, because when I feel unlovable, I don’t like anybody very much.  Let’s make these verses in the Gospel of John our daily meditation. Let’s read it thoughtfully with open minds and hungry hearts.  Taking time to savor that love, opening our hearts to experience it.  Just imagine being wrapped in the soft warm comforter of God’s love. Treasure that.   Let’s keep on opening our hearts to love, however long it takes, until we too can dance with joy.  Because that love can free us not only from judging ourselves, but from needing to judge others. Every single day, let’s whisper to God, “I’m yours. Thank you for loving me through Jesus.” Because with that love of God within us, we can become one.” 

I Ask for Peace

(I found this very thought provoking.)

Mpho Tutu van Furth describes a painful miscommunication that took place during South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process:

‘I am sorry. Forgive me’ were the words the perpetrators said. I am taking responsibility for what I did and what was done at my command or in my name. But what the victims heard was not the same. They didn’t hear the words the perpetrators said. They heard the words of the translators instead. ‘Ndicela uxolo.’ But that’s not the same.

The English ‘I am sorry’ wraps the plea in the logic of individuality and the English ‘Forgive me’ underlines the same. What I have done was done only by me and thus is only my responsibility. This ‘I am sorry. Forgive me’ is all about me.

But the old ones heard a different word. ‘Ndicela uxolo’ means ‘I ask for peace.’ It is an ubuntu apology and it is about we. ‘I ask for peace’ sees our interconnectivity.

‘I am sorry. Forgive me’ means set me free of the guilt and the shame that has burdened me. Decide to wipe the debt slate clean for me.

The old ones heard ‘I ask for peace’ and they offered forgiveness as peace based on ubuntu reciprocity. They gave their forgiveness as space to plant the seeds of a better future for the whole community. . . .

Ubuntu peace is peace between us and peace within each of us. Ubuntu forgiveness is peace that heals. . . . When the old ones heard Ndicela uxulo . . . they heard perpetrators asking for hope for a better ‘we’. They heard an appeal for healing for all of us and the space between us that is community. They heard an appeal for a healing of the fabric of life.

Tutu van Furth explains how ubuntu peace moves beyond verbal apologies to sincere action and reparations for past harm:

Without reparations ‘I am sorry. Forgive me’ asks victims to pick up an eraser and walk through the past eradicating the injuries that perpetrators inflicted so that those who wielded the scythe of destruction can be released from the guilt for their cruelty and their greed, their prejudice and violence, while preserving the benefits that their behaviour has bestowed on them and their children. Without reparations forgiveness has no ubuntu, and it heals nothing. . . .

The ubuntu understanding of forgiveness is that forgiveness cultivates justice and bestows peace. . . .

The forgiveness we once offered you would build justice where cruelty had lived. Our forgiveness was born and bred in ubuntu. Later we came to understand and see that forgiveness for you had its home in individuality and could not understand the logic of community. So forgiveness for you was what set you free of all responsibility for us.

But reparations have made a new place for us to gather. Reparations have started to reveal what it takes for all of us to heal and to step into God’s new creation.

Essential Humility

In their Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and our World, Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931–2021) and his daughter Mpho Tutu van Furth focus on our fragile humanity, the good and bad that we are all capable of, as the entry point for forgiveness:

“We are able to forgive because we are able to recognize our shared humanity. We are able to recognize that we are all fragile, vulnerable, flawed human beings capable of thoughtlessness and cruelty. We also recognize that no one is born evil and that we are all more than the worst thing we have done in our lives. A human life is a great mixture of goodness, beauty, cruelty, heartbreak, indifference, love, and so much more. We want to divide the good from the bad, the saints from the sinners, but we cannot. All of us share the core qualities of our human nature, and so sometimes we are generous and sometimes selfish. Sometimes we are thoughtful and other times thoughtless, sometimes we are kind and sometimes cruel. This is not a belief. This is a fact.

If we look at any hurt, we can see a larger context in which the hurt happened. If we look at any perpetrator, we can discover a story that tells us something about what led up to that person causing harm. It doesn’t justify the person’s actions; it does provide some context. . . .

No one is born a liar or a rapist or a terrorist. No one is born full of hatred. No one is born full of violence. No one is born in any less glory or goodness than you or I. But on any given day, in any given situation, in any painful life experience, this glory and goodness can be forgotten, obscured, or lost. We can easily be hurt and broken, and it is good to remember that we can just as easily be the ones who have done the hurting and the breaking.

We are all members of the same human family. . . .

In seeing the many ways we are similar and how our lives are inextricably linked, we can find empathy and compassion. In finding empathy and compassion, we are able to move in the direction of forgiving.

Ultimately, it is humble awareness of our own humanity that allows us to forgive:

We are, every one of us, so very flawed and so very fragile. I know that, were I born a member of the white ruling class at that time in South Africa’s past, I might easily have treated someone with the same dismissive disdain with which I was treated. I know, given the same pressures and circumstances, I am capable of the same monstrous acts as any other human on this achingly beautiful planet. It is this knowledge of my own frailty that helps me find my compassion, my empathy, my similarity, and my forgiveness for the frailty and cruelty of others.”

We All Need Forgiveness

In this homily, Father Richard Rohr reminds us of the radical and transformational power of forgiveness:

When all is said and done, the gospel comes down to forgiveness. I’d say it’s the whole gospel. It’s the beginning, the middle, and the end. People who know how to forgive have known how good it feels to be forgiven, not when they deserved it, but precisely when they didn’t deserve it.

If we’re Christian, we’ve probably said the “Our Father” ten thousand times. The words just slip off our tongues: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” By saying this prayer, we’ve asked and prayed for forgiveness. Notice the full correlation between how we give and how we receive: “Forgive us as we forgive.” They’re the same movement. We need to know that we need mercy, we need understanding, and then we also need to know how to give it. Each flows with the energy of the other.

I have often found people in 12-step programs or in jail who were quite forgiving of other people’s faults because they’d hit the bottom. They knew how much it hurt to hurt. They knew how terrible it is to hate yourself and to accuse yourself. When someone with a generous heart and a loving spirit entered their lives and forgave them, it was like being reborn. Someone else loves a part of me that I can’t love myself! They just taught me how to do it!

I remember when I was jail chaplain in Albuquerque, I would read in the newspaper the stories of criminals in our city and I would form an opinion about how terrible they were. Years ago, a young woman committed murder to steal a baby. Everybody in the city hated her, I think. I went to the jail the very next day, and they told me that she wanted to see a priest.

I didn’t want to go in the cell because I knew I wouldn’t like her. I knew I would judge her because I’d already judged her. I can’t tell the whole story, but I will share this much: when I left that cell, I had nothing but tears and sympathy for the suffering of that young woman.

You see, the One who knows all can forgive all. But all we know is a little piece—the part that has offended us. Only God knows all, and so God is the One who can forgive all.

If we’re honest, none of us have lived the gospel. None of us have loved as we could love, or as we have been loved by God. I talk about it from the pulpit much better than I live it. And yet that very recognition—that I have not yet lived love—allows me to stand under the waterfall of infinite mercy. It’s only then that I know how to let mercy flow through me freely. That I receive it undeservedly allows me to give it undeservedly.

Note from Eileen: It scares me to pray: “Lord, show me my sin, so I can be forgiven and freed to forgive.”

Living with a Grail Experience

by Richard Rohr

(Eileen: This captures the effects of my own experience. At the age of thirty, I recognized and admitted with great shame to others in a counseling group that I was incapable of loving anyone, even my wonderful loving husband and my five young children. When they tenderly accepted me without judgement, it began tp free me of my self hate and it opened my heart to a healing experience of the presence of Jesus as the expression of the unconditional love of God for me and all others.)

A powerful spiritual experience challenges us, like Parsifal in his quest for the Grail, to find a way of holding the paradox of living in the everyday world while knowing there is something beyond it. Richard explains:

Once the Grail experience is over for Parsifal, he finds himself back in the forest, back in the world as he knows it. He has been touched by God in such a way that only God will do for him from now on. He has experienced the Absolute, and the relative will never again totally satisfy him. He aches for God, and the aching now becomes the seeking.

After our own Grail experience, our lives are characterized by some measure of perpetual dissatisfaction. Nothing lives up to our standards: not the church, not ourselves, not our country. There is a radical, aching longing: Ordinary life will never again be good enough, yet it is not meaningless either.

After the Grail experience, the ordinary forever becomes extraordinary. God is both perfectly hidden and perfectly revealed in everything. Once a paper cup becomes a Grail, even if it looks like a paper cup to everyone else, we know it’s also a golden cup. What frustrates us is that we can’t tell anybody. They all think it’s just paper!

A peak experience can be disconcerting. Sometimes we might even be ungrateful for it. We don’t fit in anymore. We live the rest of our lives at a tilt, wandering like Parsifal. We might feel a bit off-center. We can’t get excited about things most people get excited about. We just don’t believe they’re important anymore.

Life’s not about being perfect. It’s about getting involved in this great wrestling match. We get wounded in the hip, like Jacob (Genesis 32:26), and we limp the rest of our lives, but we’re not worried about the wound. We’re utterly confused, but we’re not confused by our confusion. We can live with our confusion now because, behind it all, we know.

Does that sound like double-talk? When one gets into Grail language, it’s all paradox. Everyone wants to pull us back to the first language of logic, law, and ego-tower building. But we can’t go anywhere with that. We have jumped off the ego tower. Once Parsifal has seen the Grail—even though he returns to the world—he is radically different ever after.

Once we have experienced the Grail—our soul, our True Self, God-in-us—we still fall short. We betray others and ourselves. We fail to live our own truth. We act contrary to our values and beliefs. We are hypocritical, lazy, lustful, and all the rest. But we are also trapped in the truth. As Jeremiah says, it burns within us (20:9). We know it’s the truth, even though we can never live up to it. Henceforward the only sin would be to deny that it is the truth. Trying to live up to it is the rest of the Grail journey.

Now the quest is real because the Grail is real. God is real.