Monday, May 28, 2012
Serving Christ in the Way of the Heart
Serving Christ in the Way of the Heart
Contemplative Life-Active life
I grew up in a time when religious educators made a false distinction between the "active life" and the "contemplative life." A person seeking to live the contemplative life had to enter a cloister and never be heard from again. The active life was one of outward humanitarian service, a domestic married life, a life of involvement in the world, whereas, the contemplative life was seen as outside of the "world." Nothing could be further from the truth.
To live the contemplative life is to enter into the depths of the world through a growing and expanding communion with Christ in all things. This communion with Christ leads us to love and serve Christ in the world, and not to try to leave the world. A beautiful picture, was given to my spiritual friend and partner in ministry, Sr. Antoinette Traeger. The picture presents three images of an expanding heart, and is based on a phrase from the Benedictine Rule, "With Hearts Expanded." This image speaks directly to the life and practice of Breathing Yeshua and is placed in prominence in the prayer room at Shalom Prayer Center. This is a life where the Heart expands in communion with Christ to encompass all of life. There is no place, no time, no condition where we do not breathe Yeshua, and serve Yeshua in our consecrated love. The mystics and teachers of the great spiritual traditions teach an important truth. The end of the spiritual journey in this life is not the mountain-top, but it is the return and service to the world.
My father, who recently died two days after Easter at the age of 79, was a recovering alcoholic. In the last twenty years of life in grace he and I had a healed relationship. My father had been deeply wounded and broken by both the disease of alcoholism and the violence of combat in World War II. As he grew and healed in recovery he found his calling was to be a healer, especially to veterans who had suffered like him from the violence of war and addiction to alcohol and other drugs. In the latter years of his life he was an alcohol counselor and community leader.
My father's name was Bill, like mine. Dad told me that a turning point for him in his ministry to the alcohol addicted happened early in his career as an alcohol counselor. On a visit to Portland, Oregon he stopped for a conference at the Hooper Detox Center. On this occasion he was ascending the stairs to enter the building. Leaving the building at the same moment was an older man on whose face was etched the ravages of many years of alcohol dependence. For a just a brief moment Dad said there was radiance that shown from the man's face and he could see the glorified face of Christ in this man. The Gospel words of Christ came to Dad: "I was hungry and you fed me, I was homeless and you sheltered me, I was drunk and sick and abandoned and you took care of me."
From that moment on there was never any doubt in my father that this was that path of service for him. The love of Christ became the prime motivation of my father's life, and he knew that same love took him into the middle of life, into the depths of serving his Beloved in other human beings."
Compassionate Service- the Fruit of Resurrection
We, who venerate the liturgy and sacrament of the Eucharist, as we mature in the spiritual life, come to a deeper understanding of Eucharist. We are the human elements of bread and wine, lifted up and consecrated in adoration and self-offering to God. We are consecrated and transformed into the living incarnate Christ in human form and community. We become the broken Bread of Christ's Life given to the world, in this human life. We become the consecrated wine of Christ's Love offered to the world. Like St. Paul we are "… poured out as a libation." (Phil. 2:1)
Our practice takes us to a living out of the Eucharist of the Risen Christ of Easter. And if we give ourselves to this Mercy then we become accessible to the grace that transforms our human wounds and brokenness into consecrated humanity, the vessel of Christ's Self- Giving to the world. For Bill, my father, his wounds became his sacred wounds, and the means of his serving Christ in the world through what he called his “apostolate" of healing with the alcohol and drug afflicted.
In my own life my parents divorced early in my childhood. My earliest years brought great instability, episodic poverty, and constant change and upheaval. This life inflicted wounds of insecurity and emotional turmoil. Grace led me as a young child to turn inward to find the source of inner stability and safety, to find my refuge in the Presence in my own Heart within. My sacred wounds through grace had led me to find a path to resurrection. Early in my life's journey my inclination was to try to avoid life's vulnerabilities. In the course of time and the transformative love of Christ I began to move from a life of avoidance and escape from the world to growing engagement, service, and communion with the world. One of my choices in my early twenties was to seek a career in mental health counseling, a sure avenue of immersion in human suffering. In the life of Breathing Yeshua we find, each of us, a way to actualize our own Prayer of the Heart apostolate. Our growing experience of personal communion with Yeshua bears fruit as we find a way to have a life of service and belonging in the Universal Christ in humanity and all Creation. Thus our practice brings a life long development of expanding the Heart, moving from our rigid and tightly circumscribed circle of the egoic self to the universal circle of Christ that encompasses all. In this way we become His broken bread given to feed the world.
The mystics teach the inner and outer journey are one. To discover the truth of one's being is to discover the Inner Christ, but this is just the beginning. Thomas Kelley, the Quaker mystic of the 20th century says:
" Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continually return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself.
In this Center of Creation all things are ours, and we are Christ's and Christ is God's. We are owned beings, ready to run and not be weary and to walk and not faint. The Inner Light, the Inward Christ, is no mere doctrine, belonging peculiarly to a small religious fellowship, to be accepted or rejected as a mere belief. It is the living Center of Reference for all Christian souls and Christian groups - yes, and of non-Christian groups as well - who seriously mean to dwell in the secret place of the Most High. He is the center and source of action, not the endpoint of thought. He is the locus of commitment, not a problem for debate. Practice comes first in religion, not theory or dogma. And Christian practice is not exhausted in outward deeds. These are the fruits, not the roots. A practicing Christian must above all be one who practices the perpetual return of the soul into the inner sanctuary, who brings the world into its Light and who brings the Light (of Christ) into the world with all its turmoil and its fitfulness and re-creates it after the pattern seen on the Mount." ( Kelly, "The Light Within," A Testament of Devotion, p.8)
With my own inclinations of the introvert, afraid to be fully in the world, my spiritual journey in many ways started as a retreat from the world. I wanted to find a way to be safe and invulnerable in the world. So what did I do? Paradoxically in grace I chose to be a parent and to be immersed in the suffering of the human condition as a mental health counselor. When I threw myself into the thick of life, and chose to have children, a little voice said, "You are going to be hurt more than you ever thought possible." And the voice was right. So where my inward journey of contemplation took me was a vocation of compassionate service as a mental health counselor and the relational life of husband and father. It became like the Zen koan, the Christian paradox, the Christian cross of love and responsibility. In my own way, I was trying to answer Yeshua's invitation, "If you want to follow me, pick up your cross daily." For me the curse of a painful fear of the world and desire to escape it led to a gift of sensitivity and empathy, and a vocation to the healing of others. What had been deficit over the past 30 years has become strength, and hopefully a gift poured out to others.
Breathing Yeshua in the healing process of counseling has been my daily practice, my daily service. To be with others in distress means full attention, a quality of presence, and a reverence for boundaries that recognizes the sacred Christ in another. It means the capacity to empty self of self, to release from any and every agenda, and to take full responsibility to release from the projections and defense mechanisms of the ego-mind.
This practice involves the kenosis of the humility of Christ, to learn from failure and mistakes, to learn from the stories and experience of others, to learn from the suffering of others, and above all, to learn to be with my own helplessness.
To Breath Yeshua in this service of Christ means confronting the evil of self-absorption both in oneself and in those who are being helped as it presents in the helping relationship. Many who came to me in my earlier professional years had committed crimes and compassion meant shining a light on their narcissism. To work in the field of mental health is to learn from life and death, suicide and tragic sudden death, disease and aging. Breathing Yeshua becomes the ground of our security, the sanctuary of our earthly consolation, the font of our service of loving-kindness.
The Cross of Responsibility
The life of following Yeshua is one of accepting responsibility, of acknowledging we are here with work to do. For what are we responsible? Just this, to offer the best of ourselves in love. To do this we must relinquish every presumption of control, and do the best we can in love, and know it is enough. We offer it daily on the altar of our consecration to Christ, and it is enough. In truth we are responsible also for the consecration of attention which grows into presence and adoration to Christ in all things. We are responsible for the depth and consecration of our intention, which grows into self-offering love. So that Christ can serve others in us, we get ourselves out of the way. We ceaselessly offer and release all outcomes to the Mercy of God.
In this process an important question to keep asking is this: "Who is helping? Who is serving? Who is being helped?" In this way we remind ourselves we participate in a flow of Divine love and mercy that encompasses all and is vaster and deeper than any personal agenda or compulsion for achievement that may intrude. Subject and object, actor and action, disappear into the Oneness of God's Love and Mercy. We are participants in the Circle of Christ's Mercy.
Breathing Yeshua in the Praxis of Helping-
The same essential practice of Breathing Yeshua in Prayer of the Heart applies to every form of helping, every form of service. We breathe Yeshua in service to our loved ones at home, to the most vulnerable and marginalized, or to the larger community in the form of work-livelihood we have taken. In this integration of Prayer of the Heart into activity and service we uncover utter simplicity:
-The first movement: Be there, fully with the gift of Presence and Adoration to Christ who is there.
-The second movement: Be there in the most loving, the most kind way we can be, releasing from every agenda and attachment to any outcome, offering our best effort to Christ who is there.
-Trust that whatever skills we possess or require will be accessible to us in the middle of our service.
Prayer of the Heart practice in the middle of life leads us to a continual process of inward bowing and inward offering of self to the Christ we encounter every day. It is enough to recognize, be present, and be given in love, to the Christ in another and to offer without expectation. Outcomes are not ours to decide. We can participate in the flow of Divine Compassion in the most loving way, just doing the very best we can to bring forth Agape, Christ' s Self-Offering to the world. This is the goal of all life.
Transformation happens in the middle of service, in the middle of relationships, with every choice we make to bring our thoughts, our emotions, and our behavior into harmony with a growing interior union with Christ. Through ceaseless practice we align our humanity, our life, and consciousness into this greater communion, into the Great Circle of the Divine where we find our belonging. We do this inner work of transformation in the middle of Life, in ceaseless bowing in adoration to the Christ before us, in ceaseless offering in love to the Christ among us.
Climbing the Mountain to Live and Serve in the World-
In my own journey I spent a year and a half in an extended personal retreat. I took a sabbatical from the "normal pattern" to be a hermit devoted to contemplation, while still in familial life, to rest and heal in the depths of communion in God. (I did domestic work and child-care for my wife and daughter.) My rest from the outer responsibilities of life helped me unravel into the Mercy of God and unitive experience. My mistaken desire at the end of this time was to try to build a fence around the heaven I had found.
God's Providence brought me from the mountaintop back into daily human life, where my first job was at Dammasch State Hospital in Oregon. I found myself immersed in the world of chronic and acute mental illness, of profound human suffering. My second professional position made me a geriatric mental health specialist where I was, and still am, immersed in the world of disease, old age, disability and death. I found that fences around the Mercy of God don’t work.
Bringing the Practice into Every Aspect of Life
I learned Brother Lawrence's simple wisdom applies to every circumstance.
No form of service is unworthy, every form of service is service to Christ, and can become prayer when done with the full attention of presence and adoration, and the full intention of self-giving love. Washing the dishes, chopping the onions, sweeping the floors, cleaning the toilets, treating the mental and emotional distress of others, are all worthy service.
Thus service to Christ is a manifestation of praying without ceasing, expanding the Heart of Breathing Yeshua. When we live the compassionate life of service, it is the Spirit of Christ who brings compassionate help, healing and presence through us.
Thomas Kelly says this of our ceaseless prayer, "We pray, and yet it is not we who pray, but a Greater who prays in us. Something of our punctiform selfhood is weakened, but never lost. All we can say is, Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the
orbit. In holy hush we bow in Eternity, and know the Divine Concern tenderly
enwrapping us and all things within His persuading love. Here all human
initiative has passed into acquiescence, and He works and prays and seeks
His own through us, in exquisite, energizing life. Here the autonomy of the
inner life becomes complete and we are joyfully prayed through, by a Seeking
Life that flows through us into the world of human beings."
** This "Seeking Life" is Christ's Life, serving all beings.**
Serving Christ in Peace and Justice
As our hearts expand in the life of Breathing Yeshua we find they expand to include also a prophetic voice for peace and justice. This can be the most frightening development of all. When Yeshua says, "Blessed are you when you are persecuted and reviled for my sake," it hardly makes us feel at ease. Yet the most needed expressions of service to Christ are for the most poor and the most afflicted.
I previously spoke about Thomas Merton's koan of being a monk while being of compassionate service in the world. What Merton discovered was that in his writing he was called to hold accountable to the Gospel of Christ the American society around him and its abandonment of the poor, its refusal to change the injustice of racism, and its obsession with military and violent solutions in the world of foreign affairs. (Are we called to any less in our time?) At the corner of 4th and Walnut Merton discovered there is no difference between the life of inner communion with Christ and serving and opening in compassion to Christ suffering in the world. He proclaimed that the gate of Heaven is everywhere and there is no such thing as an isolated life alone with God. For Merton contemplative life and prayer, and service in peace and justice are a seamless garment.
Merton understood the whole purpose why we seek solitude as monk or layperson is so that we might leap into and live eternally in the unitive Circle of Christ. In describing Christian Meditation John Main says that we meditate in order to enter the gateway to the Center of All. So our movement in the practice of Breathing Yeshua is to break free from the constricted isolated circle of self absorption and live into the circle that encompasses all humanity, all Creation, God's circle of Eternal Love. In this way we live truly a life of the prayer of St. Patrick’s breastplate-"Christ before us, Christ behind us, Christ under our feet, Christ beneath us, Christ within us, Christ all around us."
Confronting the Evil of Selfishness
Helder Camara was a Roman Catholic Cardinal in Brazil in the latter part of the 20th century. He believed that the Christian life must of necessity involve confronting the source of evil, which is selfishness, both in oneself and in the society in which we live. "The true root of evil is selfishness. Mankind can only get out of its present explosive situation when it realizes that selfishness is international. It dominates the relationships between individuals, groups, and countries." (Camara, The Desert is Fertile, p. 34)
Fr. Camara said that in global affairs evil is asserting national self-interest over the concern for the well being of all. In the case of our consumer culture, the frenetic drive to consume and buy over every other concern is an injury to Christ. Wholesale abandonment of the poor, and the vulnerable, for the sake of consumption beyond need is wrong and sinful. A consuming country where 2% of the population consumes 2/3 of the world's vital resources, while many within its own borders go without basic needs, is unjust and sinful. Violent war as a first choice rather than a last choice seems too often policy of the United States and is a sin against life and peace. For Fr. Camara the root of all of this evil is the false center, and salvation is to find ourselves in God's center. And for Christians the way to liberation from the little center into the Center of All is the Heart of Christ and service to Christ in the world.
"Lord save me from the false center.
In particular defend me
from self-centeredness." (Camara, P. 7)
We are called, each of us, to a consecrated life, a life of risk and giveneness. In his book No Greater Love Brother Roger of Christ's call, "You open for me the way of risk. You are expecting from me not just a few crumbs, but the whole of my existence. You are praying within me, day and night…simply calling you by the name of Jesus fills the empty places in my heart.' "(Brother Roger, P. 37 ) We are called without exception to break out of the isolated life of self-centeredness to lead lives of service in peace and justice. In Breathing Yeshua we call on His name and take refuge in His Heart.
The Pain of Unitive Love
Societal culture exists in the world of separateness, a world of illusory small circles. A well-known Sufi story speaks of a master who offers the student who has reached some attainment of enlightenment the option of drinking the potion of forgetfulness. In the story the student finds that the unitive life is one that is hard and brings him continual pain and conflict with the human condition. He complains that living in the world in the unitive state is too painful. In the story he elects to drink the potion of separateness and forgetfulness again rather than face the pain and risk of the unitive life. Too many of us drink the potion. And the world of television offers us a drink of that potion each day.
To live fully alive is to be open to the pain of cruelty and the suffering of all living beings and to accept that suffering as Christ's suffering. The life of Breathing Yeshua is a life of the expanded heart. The expanded heart is the open heart and a heart that sees and hears and receives a suffering humanity. Living the Life of union with Christ is a difficult life, and it is the only Real Life. The paradox we discover is this: the expanded heart opens us to pain and opens us to joy. They are inseparable.
Unitive Life in Christ is a life devoted to peace and justice. The monotheistic traditions all use terms for God with a common root, Allaha- (Christian- the word Jesus used for God), Allah (Moslem), Ela (Jewish). They all mean the essential unity from which all things arise. This Unity is the realization of communion with Christ. The invitation of the Gospel is to enter the Realm or Essential Unity of God and live it fully.
In my father's story he saw the face of Christ in the drunk. Through grace my Dad came to see Christ in himself and he saw his life was about being Christ and serving Christ in the world. In his life he served Christ as an alcohol counselor, and in his later years as the prophetic voice of conscience and the moral authority of a spiritual elder and community leader, advocating for the drug and alcohol afflicted in his community. In that capacity he was often a "thorn" in the side of the city fathers and mothers. Yet he knew to live the fullness of the Christian spiritual journey is to live a life of the 12 step commitment to compassionate service. This service springs from the 11th step, that is, seeking conscious communion with God through prayer and meditation and all the healing and conversion that has come from the steps that precede.
Speaking the Prophetic Voice of Christ
We are all invited to come to the mountain to experience oneness with the Transfigured Christ, and to live the return or full expression of that union in the Risen Life of Christ in the world. The mountaintop and the world are inseparable. The developmental journey of life leads us in the latter phase to become a spiritual elder. In that phase of our development we come to express the prophetic voice of Christ in the larger community. Our spiritual journey does not stop at the mountaintop. The lesson of the transfiguration story in the Gospel is "Don’t try to stay on the mountaintop. Don't build stagnant tents. Rather bring the mountaintop of union with Christ into all of life." The lesson of the resurrection story in the encounter with Mary of Magdala is the same. She is one who experienced a profound and transforming communion with Christ. Instead Yeshua says to her and to us, "Don't cling to me." (your idea or image of me) He commands that we live and express the Risen Christ beyond image and form, His Essence as Universal Christ in the world. He invites us instead to see Him and serve Him in the "least of these." "As I have done to you, so you must do for one another. " " Love one another as I have loved you." John 13:16,15:9
We are called to stand with the powerless in the paradoxical invitation of Yeshua, "Blessed (Happy) are you when you are reviled for my sake." To stand with Christ in those who are injured by violence and by the injustice of poverty and want is to live the fullness of union with Christ. These are the crosses, the paradoxes of the Gospel of Christ. By being in conflict with the culture in which we live we find happiness and live in Truth. Being in conflict, fighting the adversaries of selfishness, cruelty and abandonment, for the sake of the love of Christ is our path to happiness. Again the inner work is to lay down the self-absorbed life, for the sake of the consecrated life in Christ. And this becomes the true measure of our life.
Like my father we may alienate some of the “principalities and powers" of the communities in which we find ourselves, especially those who pride themselves on being good Christians. And like my father, Bill, we will seek to live the truth that "What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me." These are the words he spoke in public when the city and county government were making the decision to abandon the drug and alcohol afflicted and close down a detox treatment center in his city. Fighting this fight, while still **being** peace, justice, and compassion, is difficult practice.
Brother Roger of Taize speaks to us of this vital way to live life in Christ:"But God is not an indifferent witness to human affliction; God suffers with the innocent victim of incomprehensible trials; God suffers with each person. That is a pain that God experiences, a suffering felt by Christ. Are you afraid of your fear? A communion with Christ gives you the courage you needed for a commitment to make the earth a place fit to live in, so that the most destitute, those most overwhelmed by injustice, are not forgotten. " (Brother Roger - p.15)