Making Your Life Vast

During my long stay in Florida, while my partner of 26 years was very ill and declining more and more each difficult day, I had two resources with me that became my main reading material for the quiet evenings. One was Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet on my Kindle and the other was the Bible in ESV (English Standard Version). One could argue that both made for somber reading, but both provided me with needed and appreciated solace.

Rilke’s Letter #8 seemed almost to have been written for my circumstances and I read it more than once. As for the Bible, I had settled on studying the book of Isaiah. Each night I would read from both books as a way to calm myself and try to get ready to sleep.

Isaiah and Rilke seemed quite unlike each other ordinarily, until one evening when it seemed to me that I was finding the same message in both. Rilke’s Letter #8 addresses how to deal with sadness and being solitary, especially when they come upon us suddenly. He wrote: “But it is necessary for us to experience that too. We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.”

After reading that from Rilke, I picked up Isaiah, where I happened to be in Chapter 54, and it told me: “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left….”

To me then and also now, these texts offer the same message: you must enlarge and expand your sense of your life, your emotional and psychic selves, so that they are vast enough to encompass and absorb whatever comes your way. Even something as devastating as the death of your partner. There will be no avoiding it, no shrinking away from it, no running away. All that is left is expanding enough, enlarging your tent enough, to accommodate it and let it be part of who you are.

My partner, Helene, passed away two months ago today, on July 22, 2016. I miss her more than I can say.

           

Power of Meditation

Part of my everyday spirituality is a daily reading from Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling. I’ve been around the calendar with it a couple of times now. Recently I was looking through some of her comments about meditation and came across this one:

When you sit quietly with Me, I shine the Light of My Presence directly into your heart.

This is one of the better descriptions of the power of meditation I have seen because it makes a useful attempt to describe what actually happens in meditation. The line resonates especially well with me because it is so close to what my first spiritual director explained to me many years ago. I had told her about my meditation practice and some of the changes that had come about in my life apparently as a result of it. She nodded and said, “By sitting in silence, you opened a door for God to speak directly to your heart.”

The practice of meditation, and this explanation of its impact, have been profoundly important in my life.

           

When Suicide Touches Your Family

These past four or five weeks have been one of the most sobering, disturbing times of my life—also one of the busiest as I have taken the lead in responding to the mundane, practical issues following on the passing, by her own hand, of my niece.

She was 42 years old, and by all outward signs, she had perhaps more possible avenues before her than many people do. She was bright, hard working, good looking, and talented in a number of ways. But two things are true: she could not see herself as others of us did, and we could not see how life was for her in the inner prison of her mind.

My initial reaction, which lasted longer than I would have preferred, was anger with her for the permanent choice she made, bringing devastation and horrible sorrow to so many, especially her mother and her children and more than one man who loved her. But as it fell to me to clear out her belongings from her home, I had the opportunity (not available to the others) to work through my feelings and come to experience her life in ways I never had before. In the process, I forgave her this act and began to pray for more for her spirit than simply that God would bless her soul.

The most frequent question people ask when a suicide occurs is: Why? And that’s the one question that cannot be fully answered because none of the possibilities really makes sense to the rest of us. There can only be acknowledgment of the wasted potential and sadness at the irreversible choice that was made.

           

My “Marilynn Robinson” Phase

For a couple of months I’ve been reading almost nothing but Marilynne Robinson. I really discovered her work only because she was suddenly pictured on the covers of both New York Review of Books and Writer’s Digest in the same month. I figured that much publicity must mean something!

So first I picked up a copy of Lila, Robinson’s National Book Critics Circle Award Winner, published in 2014. Immediately hooked, I put myself on the waiting list at the library for Gilead, which won the Pulitizer Prize, and also Home. All three books circle and recircle the lives of two families, both minister’s families, in Gilead, Iowa. The books are not heavy on plot, so if action is critical to you as a reader, these are not the books for you. However, if you like excellent writing and coming to know the psychological makeup of the characters, you will love Robinson’s work.

My favorite of the fiction books remains Lila, and the appeal lies both in the life and mind of this wonderful character and in the theological tidbits that are dropped here and there. Here is an example, spoken by Lila’s husband, the Reverend John Ames, as he reads to her a draft of a sermon: “Things happen for reasons that are hidden from us, utterly hidden for as long as we think they must proceed from what has come before, our guilt or our deserving, rather than coming to us from a future that God in his freedom offers to us.”

The sermon continues (it begins on page 222), but this opening thought struck me as worthy of dwelling upon in appreciation for the gifts that come to us—perhaps not “out of the blue” but rather out of the future God has ordained for us.

           

Christmas Week

I haven’t written a lot about holidays here, but something about Christmas begs at least a mention! And I want to acknowledge Christian writer Richard Paul Evans (author of The Christmas Box and a great many other books) for prompting this post. In the flurry of all those pre-Christmas activities, there is always something at the back of my mind waiting for attention, and Evans helped me stop to take a closer look at it.

In Evans’s Christmas message, he of course told a story, but he also made this point: “I came to the realization that it is, perhaps, not as much a question of what Christmas is about as it is what we are about. That is, while we are attempting to define the season, the season, in fact, is far more adept at defining us – questioning our hearts whether or not we will hear its call of love and joy and peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

“Questioning our hearts” nails it for me. How critical it is not to just float along, detached from awareness of who I am and how I really think, letting my truest self be buried under the onslaught of social media — but rather to insist on taking the time and focus to ask myself where I am on my personal peace walk, on my love walk, on how I look at other people especially in times of inflammatory public rhetoric. No matter what the inputs are, it is my responsibility how I translate it into attitudes and actions.

So Christmas is, at its most basic level, about the birth of a child. But it’s also about the birth of humankind’s means of salvation, and how important it is to be reminded of that at least annually, preferably a lot more frequently.

This Christmas Week, I want to be mindful to see the Christ child birthing in every person I encounter.

           

Beauty and Responsibilities

Mary Oliver (one of my favorite poets, along with Hafiz) wrote this thought in her poem “Flare,” part 12:

A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world and the responsibilities of your life.

I think I shall be living in this line all day, and because of introversion, all my lovely thoughts about it will likely remain inside my head. But here’s one, before the introversion takes over.

This single line of poetry may be the best remedy for my sorrow at the loss of a 97-year-old gentleman who was my longtime client and came to feel more like a friend, despite his wealth, status, and accomplishment that were far above my own. In the writing he and I did together, my role was mostly to bring out the best in him. We continued to work together productively until a few weeks before his passing.

He embraced responsibilities his entire life, always seeking more and never feeling overwhelmed by any that came his way. And he eagerly took in the beauty of the world, visiting more parts of it than any other person I’ve ever known. On rare occasions I thought of him as a hedonist, but now I think that he simply lived mindfully.

But the reason this line of poetry will remain in my head all day is the reminder to me that my lifetime, too, will not be long enough for the beauty of the world and the responsibilities that are mine to fulfill. The way the Roman poet Horace put it was: “Carpe diem!” I like better Mary Oliver’s way of saying the same thing.

           

How to Welcome Change

I guess it wouldn’t be Life if we did not always see change. In fact, change is so unavoidable that it makes me wonder why we always dread change. It makes more sense to dread the opposite of change, which is surely death. From that perspective, perhaps we should spread our arms and welcome all the change we can find.

Several changes stand before me, on the verge of unfolding. These range from the totally mundane to the exceptional. On the mundane side, I find I will have to do the research this year to find a new health care plan because providers I use will be dropped from my coverage in 2016. Aaaargh! No one consulted me about this change. In that way, it is typical of most change that comes my way.

On the exceptional side, I am in a weekly walk with a favorite gentleman who appears to be nearing the end of his life. He has reached the stage when he experiences spikes of good days and drops to bad days, but succeeding spikes don’t ascend as high, and the descents to bad days reach greater and greater depth. What’s painful is that everyone involved, most assuredly the gentleman himself, must learn how to do this as we go.

Nathaniel Branden wrote: “The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.” I am fully located on the second step with my mundane issue, but somewhere in the middle of the staircase with the serious change, which will bring impact to many people, not just me, in many ways.

My greatest gratitude is that I don’t face any changes, not even the small ones and certainly not the large ones, alone. God has promised to walk with us, never to leave us, and His strength and guidance are available to us at every step, as close to us as our very breath.

           

Learnings from a Broken Foot

I made reference to my broken metatarsal in my last post and even put in a photograph of the walking boot. Since then I have adjusted (pretty much) to using a crutch and to going very, very slow. If I don’t go slow, I risk accidentally coming down hard on the foot that is healing, and that is never good.

Back in August when I saw the X-ray of the broken bone, I put my trust in God to bring something good out of this situation. Now, two and a half weeks after acknowledging the break and putting on the walking boot, here are a couple of learnings gained from this experience:

1. Using a crutch always slows you down. Right now my crutch is a metal apparatus that reaches from my armpit to the floor, but I’ve had lots of crutches in my life: regret, guilt, feeling inadequate, the paralysis of inaction, etc., etc. Every single one of these crutches has slowed me down.

2. God can bring healing to any bad break in my life — certainly the physical break of a bone, but just as certainly the bad breaks of difficult relationships, poor decisions, unexpected storms, traffic delays, or illness. My job is to hold on to the faith that God, as promised, will be with me wherever I go and whatever I encounter.

           

Developing Perseverance

“Consider it pure joy,” says the book of James, “whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

Notice that James (this is in James 1:2) doesn’t say “trials of any kind,” but rather “trials of many kinds.”

So I am practicing considering it pure joy that a broken metatarsal has me in a walking boot and forced the cancellation of a long-planned trip to see family and friends—some of whom I have not seen in decades. Everything had been lined up so painstakingly, I am doubtful that I could work all that out again.

However, though disappointed at the unraveling of those plans, I am also just as willing to see the dissolution as ultimately working out for the best. If I take the oft-quoted perspective that everything happens for a reason, then I must be willing to have faith that there is a good reason even when I can’t see one. And really, that could be a corollary to the definition of perseverance (steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success).

So I am patiently sitting here with my foot mending in a walking boot, trusting that what I am really doing is developing perseverance, in order to be “mature and complete.”

           

Ultimate Optimism

Can it be that the entire month of July slipped by without a post—actually six weeks? My life has been complicated by the loss of a very beloved pet, my Pomeranian Hillary, on July 1, and I have been coping (barely, apparently) ever since. The fact that she died unexpectedly while I was holding her on my lap only added to the shock and sadness. On top of that, and certainly related, my partner has had a painful case of shingles that came on right after Hillary died and continues even now. So, my household has been a learning ground here lately!

In this context, I came across this quote from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “An adequate religion is always an ultimate optimism which has entertained all the facts which lead to pessimism.”

Typical of Niebuhr, there is a lot to chew on here. First, how often do we see “adequate” and “religion” juxtaposed! At the least, it forces me to consider whether my own religion is merely “adequate.” I don’t want to believe that I have a just-get-by religion that scarcely serves me when I’m against the wall. In some senses, I have been against the wall for the past six weeks, and I can report that my religion has been more than adequate.

But it is really the rest of the quote that most draws me. The thought is that in order to be adequate to its purpose, any belief system calling itself a religion must have considered every fact, every avenue that leads ordinary minds to pessimism, and instead it must lead the believer ultimately to optimism.

That’s a religion I will follow with my whole heart all the days of my life.

           

(Author photo by Mark Bennington.)