existentialist cafe

life is sacred

Tag: spiritual life

Grief: isolation and communion

In grief, there is both isolation and communion. This is like all experience. In all experiences there is a dimension of isolation and a dimension of communion.

Grief is isolation in two ways: in its isolative nature and its isolating potential.

Grief is isolative in nature because it belongs to the person. It is matter of the person’s own experience. It has a private nature which is of infinite dimension.

As a result of its isolative nature, grief also has the potential to be isolating. It is characterized not only by being private, but can make us feel more isolated from others. It drives a wedge between us and others. In other experiences we relish this privacy. But grief makes our privacy painful because it makes us feel the distance between us and others. Suffering can easily overtake our sense that we are a part of the human race and make us feel very alone. We feel that no one understands us, or that we have been marked and abandoned by others.

Just as grief is isolation in two ways – its isolative nature and its isolating potential – it is also communion in two ways. It is both common in nature and communing in potential.

Grief is in common as well as in private. It is common to human experience in the world. It is common in a general way, in that all grief flows from the one experience of lack and loss. It is common also in a particular way, in that it is formed by regular features of our environment that are shared by others. For example, it is common for people in some parts of American society to feel that life is disjointed, cacophonous, and without meaning. This is due to the fact that we live in a society with others, and that society forms a common reality for us.

Because grief is common in these ways it is also potentially communing. That means that grief does not only create wedges between us, but it also builds bridges between us. It knits us together as much as it tears us apart, and in fact knits us together in a much stronger way than would be possible otherwise. This happens in a general way, in that grief signals our inclusion in our deepest humanity. All violence and pain flow from the same river of human longing and grief. It happens also in particular ways, in that grief gives us the ability to resonate more fully with the experiences of others. Because we have suffered in particular ways, we are able to hear and understand others who suffer in the same way.




The story behind this post is: I posted a comment to someone else’s blog asking her what happens when we can not find in ourselves the capacity to forgive ourselves. Instead of just answering the question, she took the time to write a blog post wrestling with the question. She offers a lot of fine insight, and I recommend reading it. It stirred thoughts in me as well, which I wanted to also share.

She says that grace is a process.¬† I could not agree more. Grace is a process. It is a process that, I think, begins with the hard road of authenticity and honesty. I say that it is a hard road because authenticity is often given as a encomium to the self – “Just be who you are!” “Don’t let anyone make you different!” Although we do need to learn to celebrate our selves in our mere being, rather than for anything we have earned or accomplished, the state of perceiving our moral failure undercuts our ability to do this.

Authenticity also includes experiencing what I would call lack (also known as privation, sin, disease, sickness), which is honesty about my limitations, destructiveness, and consequences of choices that I have made. In the moral realm, I especially lack the will to restrain from behaviors that are bad, and activate behaviors that are good. I also lack understanding: of what is bad, of what is good, and of what will lead to a better, more flourishing life for me and others.

For me, the key to beginning forgiveness is a willingness to allow all of those uncomfortable and painful feelings that accompany awareness of my moral lack to be really and totally present – a willingness to be aware of the real consequences of what I do, of my feelings of inadequacy, failure, etc. This is what I think Carl Rogers meant by radical self-acceptance, and his big little idea that we do not change until we accept who we are. Feelings of guilt, shame, resentment, self-loathing… we should not once again feel as though we must hide those things from ourselves and others, but allow them to be brought out into the light.

Those feelings are expressions of sorrow. And we know that grief can not be chased away or reasoned away, but only swallowed up in the work of compassion. A hard road, as anyone who has lost someone precious can tell you. We must be allowed to grieve our own destructiveness and failure, which does, unfortunately, mean experiencing it in a totality that we do not usually do.

She brings up another good point – we are better at forgiving others than we are at forgiving ourselves. To turn it around a bit – I can learn to forgive myself by experiencing the love and acceptance of others.

This is, ultimately, the reason that the Christian church has practiced confession of sin, both to spiritual leaders and “to one another.” Unfortunately, in practice this is often a matter of compounding guilt rather than acknowledging and honoring guilt, and meeting it with compassion and grace. So this is why the author referenced “spirit” – that which looks at us with a loving gaze. By not allowing people the opportunity to name their sin for what it is, or washing it away into some denial that there is that in us which is destructive, we will only compound its damage.

Of all the place I’ve been, the place where I have most seen a willingness to entertain this radical self-acceptance as well as to extend the hand of compassion and fellowship is in addiction recovery. Because then you have to face yourself, and all the consequences of your choices.

If all else fails, get a dog. They just look at you and accept you!

P.S. Ultimately, there’s no “answer” that can be neatly packaged. It is a journey that is hard. It takes courage. And not a little bit of wrestling and confusion.

The constancy of Beauty

It seems to me that those things which appear to be beautiful to me are, in fact, beautiful. Is this surprising? Yes. Because I have thought something was true, only to find out that it was not true. I have thought that something was good, only to find out that it was not. But beauty does not seem to capable of lying. Now it is most definitely the case that something which did not seem to be beautiful then turned out to be beautiful.

I do not think we are drawn toward what is false, but we falsely think certain things are true when they are not. Likewise, I do not think that we are drawn toward what is bad, but we falsely thing that things are good when they are not. We are not drawn toward what is ugly – but can we falsely think that something is beautiful? If not, then is it possible that beauty is our most reliable guide?

Thoughts from my journal

When I sin, is it really anyone’s concern but mine?

If I have retreated to my own interior kingdom, then I only lay my own interior kingdom to waste. That was what the prodigal son thought: “It is my money; I can do with it as I like.” So I think: “It is my soul, I can do with it as I like.” Awareness of my soul does it thereby confer to me ownership of my soul; rather, the soul must be given as an inheritance is given. Although it is my right from birth, I must wait to be given it, and in the meantime prepare myself as one who receives. The presence of God rests in me, and I destroy it when I destroy my own soul. To return, or to allow myself to be brought back, is a restoration of the universe, insofar as the presence of God is in me. The restoration is not complete until all things return – animals, plants, people, asteroids, hydrogen atoms. As all creation groans, all creation also sings a hymn of praise.

Ignatian indifference

I was really delighted to learn about Ignatius’ concept of indifference, as this was the first time I had come across a Christian spirituality that explicitly expresses a manner of being that is similar to the Taoist notion of wu wei.

They are similar, but different. Both aim at detachment from things that are not sturdy and will, in the end, disappoint us. From my limited understanding, Taoism seems to point toward abandonment of striving, whereas Christianity points toward fullness of striving. Ignatius, however, warns (as do other theologians) that we become easily enamoured with created things. Rather, he said, we ought to have indifference towards those things. That does not mean apathy, but it does mean detachment.The best way I can think of it is that rather than seeking to hold on to things, we accept them as gift. Rather than closing our fist around things–relationships, vocations, beliefs, statuses–we receive them with an open palm, and keep our palm open.. When we realize how we are attached to God, or how God has attached us to Her, then we have no need for so much clutching.

The Triad: Authenticity, Courage, and Humility

The process of spiritual growth, I have found, depends largely on the interplay between three virtues: authenticity, courage, and humility. I’ve given each one a patron saint, too!

Authenticity is truth-telling. It is being plainly honest with ourselves (and with others) about what we think and what we feel. If we persist in telling ourselves lies, then we will always be stuck with lies. It’s obvious when we think about some external matter – what is the sense in maintaining an illusion that your car is working fine when there is smoke pouring out of the engine? It may be unpleasant, but that does not mean that it is not true. I believe this is what Freud had in mind when he spoke of our efforts to push unpleasant feelings aside. This is an inauthentic way of living. Carl Rogers, my patron saint of authenticity, said that only when we have first accepted who we are can we change. A curious paradox. I think the practice of authenticity taps into those desires which expand and open up the self.

This takes courage. Many truths are hard to face, and we prefer the comfort of lies. Courage allows us to walk the difficulty path of authenticity, knowing that it is a good path. The difficulty is not removed, though. The source of our anxiety and fear remains with us, and we will have many opportunities to fall into despair. Courage is not a magic bullet that destroys the anxiety; it does, however, enable us to transcend it. The patron saint of courage is Paul Tillich. “Courage,” he said “is the self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of non-being.” In fact, Tillich sees courage as a vital part of faith.

Humility is a particular posture. The humble person is a servant of the truth, not the other way around. It is a posture of openness that comes from a recognition that we are limited, finite beings whose knowledge is always condition by our finitude. Humility is a peculiar virtue because the desire to attain it precludes true humility. This is a point that was made by Thomas Merton, the patron saint of humility, who had an uncanny knack of detecting the subtle ways that pride works its way into our lives. On the surface, we appear to be defined by selfish devotion, but in fact we are intent on hoarding spiritual riches (as if there was such a thing) for our selves. He uses a beautiful image of glass which becomes more invisible the more light it lets through. You’ll notice that this brings together humility and authenticity. The person who is both open to receiving understanding and committed to speaking authentically will become a conduit through which grace and mercy flow.

And the painted ponies go up and down

The notion of samsara is a compelling one. When cosmologies speak of cycles, I think they are drawing our attention to something which is at once both fundamental and profound. As much as we chart a straightforward course through life, it is difficult to ignore the cycles that gird us Рday-to-night, season-to-season, the waxing and waning of the moon. But samsara is also a course. One travels through cycles of birth, death, and rebirth in the path of enlightenment.

Spiritually speaking, there are cycles of death and rebirth that we go through in our lives as well. In fact it seems to be a requisite part of the spiritual life. If we desire to walk that path, then we must be willing to let go of what is most precious to us. At times we get stuck at some place in the cycle, stubbornly clutching the doorjamb even as we are being carried to something new and better. In the contemplative Christian tradition, the guiding image is the ladder of divine ascent. In the foreground is the idea of slow-and-steady progression, though in the background is the idea that one must die to one’s self in order to find new life and that one must do this continually.

Although I think it would be a mistake to ignore the profound differences between Buddhism and Christianity (for instance, Christianity has a theology of the self while classical Buddhist teaching rejects the self), I think it is worthwhile to think about how the idea of cycle and the idea of ascent are both true pictures of the spiritual life.

Joni just had a birthday this week, so this is doubly appropriate:


When the angel dislocated Jacob’s hip joint, he dislocated Jacob at the same time. He is our recalcitrant spirit. If you want to walk with God, you will walk with a limp. The man-of-the-world is now a wanderer, home nowhere, home everywhere. Remember, Jacob died in Egypt, far from the promised land.

Trick candles

I’ve said it before, but we are lucky that our souls are like trick candles. Again and again we expose them to the ruach of this world, but they keep coming back.

How good, how pleasant it is…

Unification is a worthy guide. “How good, how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity.” “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall be become one flesh.” But then it also says, “he shall rule over you.” Now, the doorway to the garden is guarded making impossible a return to naivete. We have no choice but to develop within our lives east of Eden the means of trust and unity.

Unity is not fusion. The desire for fusion, as powerful as it may be, is nostalgia for the garden. Unity does not abrogate or destroy distinctness. It preserves and also transcends distinctness. Neither is unity mere co-existence, or cooperation. We can, unfortunately, live into it only in glimpses and glimmers. But it is good when we allow it to order our lives; to order our inner life, and also to order our common life with others. I think that it happens routinely, as we go about our day; it is haphazard, however, and since it is without intention it slips away just as easily.

Before seeking unity with others, it is enough to begin with a desire for unity within ourselves – an end to enmity between the different parts of ourselves, to reconcile that within us which is at war (though I am aware that devoted time to others can also help with this). This reconciliation will have to exercise the spiritual dimension of our existence, which is the only thing which is large enough to bring about reconciliation. Even if we do not know that it is the spiritual dimension of our existence which is being exercises, still that is what brings unity. The more conscious we are of it, however, the better.