Friday, May 29, 2009

Feeling Happy

I had a very pleasant day today. Co-workers are always in a good mood on Friday. I was especially happy because I knew that I would be on vacation once my workday was complete. Most Fridays I start getting into the weekend mindset at lunch time. One small gift to myself is to always go out for lunch on Fridays. Usually I go with my friend, Wendy, but she is on vacation this week with her family. Today I went out with other co-workers and had a delightful time. It was a beautiful and sunny day. It was warm but not hot. The walk to the restaurant was pleasant. Our lunch was filled with good conversation and laughter. My current work situation is very comfortable. I like my co-workers and I personally have a wonderful staff. After returning to the office I sat at my desk, stared at my computer, and wondered what I would do to make the time pass. Quite unexpectedly my kind boss gave me an early start on my vacation week. I flew out of the office and came home for a couple of hours before picking my wife up at her office. Somewhere in this time I squeezed in a short nap.

Now I sit here in my room feeling happy. Santana is jamming in the background. A cup of coffee perks me up a bit. Tonight and tomorrow will be full of leisure except for some last minute laundry and packing my bags for a trip to the mountains on Sunday. I will be there a few days with my family. Upon my return I will have a few more days of leisure at home. I am feeling a little tired at the moment like I do every workday evening. It's a good tired, however, and one that still anticipates a week of freedom.

I'm sure I will probably write on this blog again before I leave home on Sunday but once I am gone it will be silent for a few days. Sometimes it is a good thing to let the writing rest. On a good day I might have something to say that others enjoy or find helpful. Others days I am empty and it would be best to not try too hard to write something meaningful. I think I will stop now and get lost in Santana's version of Miles Davis's "In a Silent Way". It is simply awesome. The early and original version of Santana was an incredible band who made their national debut at the original Woodstock Festival. I saw them the first time around the time the show I am listening to now from the closing of the Fillmore West in 1971 was recorded. Santana and Miles Davis are personal favorites.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Somedays Are Just Ordinary And A Little Boring

The last two days have started off beautifully with bright sunlight, blue skies, and coolness. They appeared to have the promise of perfect spring days. Both days, however, have also had torrential rainfall in the early afternoons. Many may not think that is part of a perfect day but it is certainly part of a typical spring day in Kentucky. By the time I left work each day the rains were gone and the sunshine had returned. If I didn't work under an atrium and near windows I may not have known it rained either day.

For the last hour or so I have been doing a sleep study in my chair. The results are now in. Apparently, I was just very tired. This is a short work week due to the Memorial Day holiday on Monday. Typically short work weeks always seem much longer than a normal work week. This week is no different. If that's not enough I am on vacation next week so this week my mind is already in the vacation mode. In my mind I am already there. My attempts to be invisible and to fly under the radar are complicated by the fact that I am also very bored at work this week. Truthfully, I am bored at work a lot. Sometimes it is from not having enough to do. However, even doubling my workload would not cure the boredom. I am bored with the tasks that I perform. I've been doing what I do for so long that little challenges me. The workday is made bearable by the interactions I have with friends and co-workers.

Some days are just ordinary and a little boring. Today is such a day. The good news is that I am still happy. Tonight I seize the ordinary and the boring and I turn it into a sleep study. You know how much I love to learn! Well, it's time to go prepare some coffee. Later this coffee will help me wash down some sugar free dessert while I watch the Discovery Channel where a group of highly educated city folks struggle to survive in the Alaskan wilderness. I will consume chocolate pie while they eat porcupine stew.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Contemplative Thoughts

None of us are completely present. So don’t feel guilty, but do know presence is still the great teacher, those enlightened moments that come now and then. When we are manipulating, changing, controlling, and fixing, we are not there yet. We cannot be present to something and trying to change it at the same time.

The calculating mind is the opposite of the contemplative mind. The first is taught by the systems of our world, the second by the Holy Spirit.

We might consider this prayer to try to draw ourselves into a contemplative frame of mind:

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.

-from Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr, OFM

This will give us some idea of the proper preparation that the contemplative life requires. A life that is quiet, lived in the country, in touch with the rhythm of nature and the seasons. A life in which there is manual work, the exercise of arts and skills, not in a spirit of dilettantism, but with genuine reference to the needs of one's existence. The cultivation of the land, the care of farm animals, gardening. A broad and serious literary culture, music, art, again not in the spirit of Time and Life, but a genuine and creative appreciation of the way poems, pictures, etc., are made. A life in which there is such a thing as serious conversation, and little or no TV. These things are mentioned not with the insistence that only life in the country can prepare a [person] for contemplation, but to show the type of exercise that is needed.

-by Thomas Merton. The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation. William H. Shannon, editor (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003): 131.

Visiting My Dad

The long holiday weekend is nearly over. I'm not too upset because I only have to work four days this week and then I am on vacation. Overall, this has been a good weekend. Saturday my wife and I saw "Angels and Demons" which is much better than "The Da Vinci Code". "Angels and Demons" will not challenge anyone's faith, at least it shouldn't. It's little more than a murder mystery with Rome and the Vatican as a backdrop. After the movie we met Chloe and her parents at a local restaurant to celebrate my oldest son's 31st birthday. Having a son in his 30's is a wake up call for me. After dinner my granddaughter came home with my wife and me to spend the night with us. She is nearly five years old and very much her own person. She is the most loving person in my life. She adores me and I adore her. She did, however, throw me under the bus one time. When Granny asked "Who trashed the living room"?, Chloe responded, "Pa Paw"! Last night my family attended a fish fry and shrimp boil at my mother's with most of my extended family. The weather cooperated and everyone seemed to have a very enjoyable time. I am part of a good and large family. They have their quirks and no one, including me, is perfect but I take comfort that I will never be alone in this world. I am now the senior male now that my father has passed on.

This morning my youngest brother picked me up and we went to the cemetery to visit my father's grave. For those that follow my life you may remember that he died on February 11th of this year. Today was my first visit to the cemetery since his funeral. His grave marker is still not there but we know where he is. He is next to an aunt and uncle of mine. Not too far away from my Dad is his mother. It still seems hard to believe that Dad is gone. While we were at the graveside my sister also showed up. In recent years I have felt closer to my siblings. I am glad and also very happy that our family is free of any strained relationships. The rest of my day was spent simply taking it easy. Tomorrow it's back to the rat race or, to quote one of my nieces, the "soul sucking enviroment of corporate life". Well, my work life is not that bad but I know what she means.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

It's Going To Be A Long Day

I have been up since 7:30 AM with my granddaughter. Her first words to me this morning were "I've been jumping over flowers". When I asked her about it, she said, "It was a dream, Pa Paw"! It's been a long time since Pa Paw dreamed about jumping over flowers. I would be happy to have a dream where I simply walked through the flowers in a French Impressionist painting.

Chloe and I spent the first 30 minutes of our day sitting in my bathroom observing the three baby birds in the nest on the ledge outside my bathroom window. They were huddled together in the nest and looked like nothing but a pile of feathers. I explained to Chloe that the mommy bird was out getting breakfast for her babies and that we needed to get away from the window so she wouldn't be afraid to return. I finally convinced her to sit with me on the side of the bathtub. As soon as we did that the mommy bird appeared and the baby birds immediately awakened with their heads upward and their mouths wide open. Chloe was fascinated watching the mommy bird feed her babies. After two or three feedings everyone seemed content.

It is overcast outside and there is a good chance it will rain today. Hopefully all the families in this area can still have their cookouts and family get togethers as Americans celebrate Memorial Day. For those of you outside this country Memorial Day is a national holiday in the USA where we honor and remember all those who have died in war. Later today my family will join my extended family for a meal at my mothers house. Tomorrow most people will also get a day off from working.

For now I will enjoy some solitude while brownies bake in the kitchen and fill the house with their aroma. Some quiet Grateful Dead acoustic plays in the background. I think it's time for another cup of coffee. Last week when I was at the monastery I bought a bag of coffee grown by Trappist monks in Venezuela. It's pretty good stuff and I usually only drink it on weekends. It's a quiet morning on the neighborhood and I am enjoying its peacefulness.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Favorite Guitar Players

Tonight I was on Facebook attempting to list my Top Five Guitar Players. It was an impossible task. I still can't do it so I thought I would post a longer list here of some of my favorite guitar players. I have limited this list to guitar players that I have actually seen play live. I could list more but these are the musicians I never grow tired of hearing. Their virtuosity has provided some of the great moments of my life. Yes, I've had great rock and roll experiences in my life. The list speaks for itself.
  • Duane Allman and Dickie Betts of the Allman Brothers Band
  • Eric Clapton
  • Robbie Krieger of the Doors
  • Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead
  • Buddy Guy
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Joe Walsh
  • Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna
  • Robert Fripp of King Crimson
  • Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin
  • Leslie West of Mountain
  • Hughie Thomasson and Billy Jones of the Outlaws
  • David Gilmour of Pink Floyd
  • Carlos Santana
  • Alvin Lee of Ten Years After
  • Robin Trower
  • Toy Caldwell of the Marshall Tucker Band
  • Stevie Ray Vaughn
  • Pete Townshend of the Who
  • Johnny Winter
  • Steve Howe of Yes
  • Neil Young
  • Frank Zappa

Chloe's Graduation

Yesterday I left work, picked up my wife at her office, and then proceeded to Chloe's daycare for her graduation ceremony. It was so grown up. All the children wore caps and gowns. After singing a few group songs each child came up to the Director of the daycare to receive a diploma. When Chloe came up to get hers it was announced that she wanted to grow up and work on computers. That's good because Pa Paw screws his computer up on a regular basis! Chloe is moving to the next rung in the ladder of life. After a special summer program she will attend kindergarten in the fall. I cannot believe that she is growing up so fast. If you have been following my life through this blog I don't have tell you which child in the picture above is my granddaughter. At the moment, as I sit hear typing this note, Chloe is upstairs with my wife carefully looking out my bathroom window. On the ledge outside is a robin's nest with three baby birds that we have been observing since we noticed the nest and the three blue eggs that appeared there. This evening Chloe will spend the night and tomorrow we are going to a Memorial Day cook out with all of my family at my mother's house. I just had to chase Chloe out of my room because she ran in here as naked as the little baby birds in the robin's nest. I told her to go get her clothes on and finish watching the SpongeBob Squarepants marathon on television. There's never a dull moment when Chloe is here!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Practicing For Retirement

The last few days have passed quickly. Usually a short work week seems twice as long as a normal work week. Like many people I am eager for the long Memorial Day weekend that is approaching. This past Monday I took the day off to recuperate from the busy weekend I had at the monastery. Usually when I am at the monastery I am recuperating from my busy life. This time I had to come home to recuperate. Monday was spent practicing for retirement. I ran a few errands and did a few chores. One of the errands was to get a haircut. I am completely bald on the top of my head but the hair on the sides of my head had gotten long enough to start resembling wings. On windy days I almost took flight. Sometimes I think of shaving my head and beard. I have not been clean shaven since 1978. My children and granddaughter have never seen me without a beard. Even I can not remember what I look like. During the five minutes it took the barber to clip my wings I had her in hysterics. She asked me where I worked so I told her. When she asked what I did, I replied, "As little as possible". I told her that in my head I was ready to retire from working but my wallet tells me I cannot stop. I shared that although my body is getting old, my mind is still young. In spite of being young at heart I am also very good at being an old man. I love days where I have no strict schedule or agenda. I love to "piddle" and to just be open to the day. I am very good at doing nothing. Instead of working I would like to surprise my granddaughter by picking her up after school. We would go get ice cream and talk of many things.

So, I enjoyed my extra day off and the nothingness that seemed so full. Isn't it ironic that when are days are jammed full, they seem so empty of anything meaningful? Yet, a day free of obligation and expectation can be so full? I will take a day of unknown possibility anytime over a day of boring obligations and meaningless tasks. Of course, even these less desired days may have purpose. What is boredom to one is faithfulness to another. Still, in my own life, the sameness and boredom of many days often robs me of happiness. Today, however, the sun is shining and I feel good. I just returned from a walk around the park. My newly shorn head acts like a solar panel. The sun energizes me and gives me zest for living. One more work day and I will have a three day weekend. This will be followed by another short work week and then nine days of vacation. Some days it is good to be me.

The highlight of my workday today was lunch in the park with a friend. We took our lunch across the road from our office and sat on a bench in the shade. It was a beautiful day. The sun was hot but a nice breeze made us feel quite nice. One sign of a good friendship is when you can simply sit together in silence. We talk a lot but we are also comfortable with saying nothing and just enjoying the moment.

Monday, May 18, 2009

From Silence to Home

I spent part of my last predawn hours sitting in a chair by my window wrapped in a blanket. It is cold outside and there is no heat in my room. It wouldn't matter anyway since I have opted to keep the window open. Looking out my window I can see the locals arriving for the 6:00 AM mass. I think there is also a 4:00 AM mass that Father Matthew used to call the "milker's mass" because local dairy farmers used to attend it because it was convenient for their milking schedule. I doubt if there are many such farmers left. Even the monks long ago sold off their dairy herd. As a young novice I used to work in the cow barn in the afternoons feeding all the cows with Brother Ferdinand and Brother Alban. Both of them are in heaven now.

Dawn is finally here and the time of my departure is not far away. In a couple of hours I will be in another meeting but this one will be with the Abbot. Not long afterwards I will attend mass with the monastic community. When that is over, I will eat one last meal before driving home and returning to my normal life.

Final thoughts...

By the time I got through my final meetings and mass with the monks I felt exhausted and a little stressed as odd as that might sound. I decided to leave for home as soon as mass was over. The drive home was pleasant but I was very weary. Upon arrival and after greeting my wife I decided to take a nap in my chair. Not long afterwards, and much to my surprise, I was awakened by an angel who looked a lot like my granddaughter, pictured above.

Silence Is Spoken Here

Last night turned cold but I slept well. When my alarm went off at 3:00 AM I was tempted to stay in my warm bed. Grace prevailed, however, and I rose to join the monks for Vigils. Sunday Vigils are long. It would have been easy to drift off to sleep but I stayed awake. At times, though, I did succumb to weariness and I sat down. Many of the monks are now elderly so even they sit down occasionally during their prayers. For the most part we were on the schedule.

After Vigils I went to the dark and quiet dining room for my first cup of coffee and some toasted whole wheat bread with honey and peanut butter. The bread at the monastery is made by the monks and is simply delicious. Like other similar moments in previous visits my simple bread and coffee seemed like a great feast as I sat in the darkness with my silent thoughts and God's embrace. For a moment I thought about my experiences of doing the same thing in France a few years ago. I attended Vigils in a cold, drafty, and unheated oratory in Clairvaux. Afterwards our local hosts served us french bread and coffee in front of a blazing fire. It is amazing to me how such simple experiences can seem so delightful.

Now I once again sit in my solitude with more coffee to warm me from the chill of the night air. Yes, I could close my bedroom window but then I could not hear the sounds of the still dark night. These predawn hours are my favorite time of day when I am at the monastery. Admittedly if I was at home I would still be in my dreams. However, even in my current state of wakefullness, it seems like a dream.

The silence of this hour is not only soothing, it is healing. At various places around the monastery are small signs that say "Silence is spoken here". More than anything else, it is the silence that people remember most when they visit here.

Saturday Compline...The Day Comes To An End

There is still daylight outside but today is essentially over, at least in this monastic world. It has been a very long day. Most of it has been spent in meetings discussing the practical challenges and frustrations of managing a spiritual lay group that now numbers 230 people in 30 states. I feel like I was in a meeting at my employer. There were disagreements and occasional emotional tension. People and their personalities are universal in their sameness. It doesn't matter if they are spiritual. Everyone has an agenda and everyone has buttons that other people push. I am not sure these people are any easier to manage than the people I encounter in my corporate world.

Before today's meetings started my day got off to an interesting start. Someone from my group had the idea that we would plant a tree in memory of any monks who passed away in the last year. It seemed like a simple and meaningful idea. However, I don't think any of we city folk realized that we would have to actually dig the hole. We were told to meet one of the still living monks across the highway from the monastery at what is called the family guesthouse. Most of us were freshly showered and ready for a meeting. The next thing I know Brother Conrad shows up in a pickup truck full of shovels, a pick, and buckets of mulch. Father Michael is driving a small tractor. If I had been chosen to swing the pick I may have needed bed rest for the remainder of the day. Brother Conrad, who is approximately 80 years old, could have worked circles around any of us. After sharing the labor and no one getting hurt, the main tree and a couple of saplings were planted.

My dinner tonight left something to be desired so I went downstairs to the dining room for a bowl of cheerios. There was still some daylight when I finished so I decided to take a walk through the part of the monastic cemetery. From my time in the monastery many years ago I knew most of the monks buried near Thomas Merton and also those buried in the newest section section of the cemetery. All of the monk's graves are marked with the same type of simple cross and plaque identifying them by name and date of death. I walked from cross to cross and quietly spoke a few words to each of them based on my particular memory of them. Almost all of these now dead monks, some more than others, touched my life when I was a young novice. In the evening, when the orange glow of the sun is setting behind the distant hills, the surrounding landscape has great beauty and peacefulness. This beauty has not diminished one bit in the many years that I have been visiting here.

Saturday Vigils

The day begins in the middle of the night if you follow the monastic schedule. At home I wouldn't even consider getting out of bed at this hour unless the house was on fire. When I am at the monastery I actually enjoy it. Admittedly, 3:00 AM is 3:00 AM no matter where you are. It just isn't natural to get out of bed at this hour. Sitting here, lost in the moment, however, seems so perfect. It is now 4:20 AM. Outside the darkness covers all the surrounding fields and woods. The wind occasionally howls and the gusts have blown away yesterday's humidity. At some point yesterday, in one of my quiet and restful moments, I had an imaginary conversation with God in my head...or was it real? In the conversation God said, "You thought by leaving the monastery you were getting off the hook, didn't you? You now think 30+ years of marriage, two grown children, a daughter in law, a beautiful granddaughter, your job and all the other demands and expectations of the world relieve you of what I expect, don't you? Michael, my son, you are wrong. By the way, I'm taking one of you sons because I need a priest. I still call you to myself and nothing and no one but me will completely satisfy you". I had no response. How can I argue with God? Sometimes I get angry with God but I can never win an argument.

Being in this Now moment and being in this place I think of yesterday's conversation...or was it a lecture from God? Whatever it was reawakens within me the deep realization that I don't always have my priorities straight or realistic expectations about many things. My entire life, in good times and bad times, stumbling along the spiritual path, when I am awake or when I am asleep, aware or unaware, consciously or unconsciously, I have been trying to follow the sound of God's voice calling me. I know, even when I do not want to believe it, that nothing and no one will fill my emptiness except God.

As if to say, "Yes, Michael, I think you finally get it", a clap of thunder followed my epiphany.

Richard Rohr, OFM, in his book entitled "Everything Belongs" says the following.

The contemplative secret is to learn to live in the now. The now is not as empty as it might appear to be or that we fear it may be.

Try to realize that everything is right here, right now. When we’re doing life right, it means nothing more than it is right now, because God is in this moment in a non-blaming way.

When we are able to experience that, taste it and enjoy it, we don’t need to hold on to it. The next moment will have its own taste and enjoyment.

From Everything Belongs, pp. 60, 61

Weekend At Gethsemani...Slowing Down

Yesterday I returned from three days at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Although a large part of my time was spent in meetings related to a lay association at the Abbey, I still managed to have some quality personal time in the silence and solitude of my room and in the quietness of the Abbey church. Although I did not have a lot of time for writing I did manage a few notes that I will now begin to share for those who may enjoy such reflections.

Friday...late night.

I am at the Abbey of Gethsemani. It is late night here. In the world it is about 9:20 PM. The night is quiet and dark outside my window except for the distant sounds of singing insects.

My eagerness to get out of the city and to be at the monastery was not completely practical. I arrived here at 8:30 AM after taking my wife to work, fighting the morning commute, and stopping for breakfast at a fast food restaurant. The retreat house rooms are not available to new arrivals until 11:30 AM. I wandered around for several hours in the interim. Whenever I arrive at the monastery, whether it be for a day or an extended stay, I begin with restlessness. It takes a while for my inner time clock to go into the slow mode. A retreat for me must begin with an application of my inner brake.

After I finally got in my room I spent some time in prayer and meditation. I started by using the Thomas Merton book entitled "A Book of Hours". It is based on the Liturgy of the Hours but uses only Merton's thoughts, prayers, and poetry. The prayers for today hit me like a ton of bricks. In part, the prayers for daytime had the following words, "Why should I cherish in my heart a hope that devours me...the hope for perfect happiness in this life...when such hope, doomed to frustration, is nothing but despair. My hope is in what the eye has not seen. Therefore, let me not trust in visible rewards. My hope is in what the heart cannot feel. Therefore let me not trust in the feelings of my heart. My hope is in what the hand has not touched. Do not let me trust in what I can grasp between my fingers".

It is now late and I am very tired. I am off to bed if there is any hope of joining the monks at 3:15 AM for their night "Vigils".

"In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is".
-Thomas Merton
from New Seeds of Contemplation

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Going Up To The Country

The title of tonight's blog is actually the name of one of my favorite hippie anthem's by the legendary 60's band "Canned Heat". I am going up, actually down, to the country but I'm not going to Woodstock. Quite the opposite....

Today started out as a very rainy day. Big Surprise! By noon the rain had stopped although it was still overcast. I slipped out of the office and drove over to the Veteran's Hospital where my friend, Wayne, is a chaplain. Every month or so we meet for lunch. Wayne and I seem to connect and I find him very enjoyable to be with. We talk mostly of the spiritual life and some of our personal struggles. He is also very encouraging about my writing on this blog. That helps me a lot because there are certainly days when I wonder why the hell I do this. My thoughts today are going to be rather short. It's Thursday night and tomorrow I am going to the Abbey of Gethsemani. I will be there until Sunday afternoon. I am really looking forward to it. As usual when I take a trip, I haven't packed a thing. I just woke up a few minutes ago from an unplanned nap. I've been home alone and unsupervised most of the night. My wife is out with friends and my son also had dinner with friends. Just a moment ago he pulled into the driveway from wherever he was. It's been a pleasant evening though some if it was lost to the time travel experience of sleeping. When I go to the monastery I will not have access to a computer so you won't be hearing from me for a few days. I'm sure when I return I will have stories to tell and things to write about. Be back soon....

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Beauty Can Be Found Anywhere

Today was another overcast and rainy day. I'm starting to feel like I live in the rain forest. I haven't checked the extended weather forecast but I am hoping for some sunny and dry days while I am at the monastery this weekend. Today was also a quiet day. I met an old high school buddy for lunch. We discussed how unreal it seems that we are having a 40th high school reunion in the fall. Can it really have been so long ago that we drove around in cars, drinking beer on the sly, and blasting rock and roll music? By the time I got out of high school I was smoking pot, dropping acid, and growing my hair long. These days I feel like I'm getting wild if I drink two Diet Cokes and order an extra topping on my pizza. Our lunch was at one of my favorite restaurants. They have an awesome fried fish sandwich. It's one of my few concessions to my attempt at healthy living. The restaurant is in a part of downtown that's a little blighted. As I was walking back to my car I heard the heavenly sound of flute music in the air. I stopped to see where it was coming from and on a nearby corner stood a street musician who was possibly homeless. It reminded me that beauty can be found anywhere.

One more workday and I will have some personal freedom. I look forward to temporarily escaping secular time and living for a bit in the sacred time and rhythm of the monastery. It is always renewing for me when I am there. It also often gives me a new appreciation for the life I have in the world. Sometimes you can be too close to your own life to appreciate it. Stepping back and getting away, even if it's only for a few days, can change your whole perspective on life.

Here's something I read tonight by an old friend and teacher from my youth. His name is Father Richard Rohr. He is a Franciscan priest, renowned preacher, and author. He taught me much in my youth and I am still learning from him.

As Eckhart Tolle points out in The Power of Now, we don’t have to be in a certain place or even a perfect person to experience the fullness of God. God is always given, incarnate in every moment and present to those of us who know how to be present ourselves.

Strangely enough, it is often imperfect people and people in quite secular settings who encounter “The Presence” (Parousia, “fullness”). That pattern is rather clear in the whole Bible.

Let’s state it clearly: One great idea of the biblical revelation is that God is manifest in the ordinary, in the actual, in the daily, in the now, in the concrete incarnations of life, and not through purity codes and moral achievement contests, which are seldom achieved anyway.

From Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, pp. 16

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sitting In The Dark

Today was a very busy but good day. My day got off to a good start. The early morning air was cool and refreshing as I walked outside to get my morning paper. The morning commute was under bright sunlight and a cloudless sky. I was busy all day but the activity was enjoyable. Most of it was meeting individually with members of my staff who actually work at home. I usually meet with them about once a month so they don't lose touch with the office and I don't lose touch with them. I always enjoy the conversations. After work I had to fight the evening commute for about an hour before meeting up with two of my brothers and one of my sisters. We were going together to visit another family member who is once again hospitalized due to mental health issues. It was a good visit but the road to recovery will be a long one. Now I am home, sitting at my little desk, as the day draws to it's conclusion. The sun has set and a gentle breeze occasionally blows in my window. All is quiet in the neighborhood.

Speaking of quiet...

I will be rising at my usual time on Friday but instead of going to work I will be driving to the monastery for a three day, two night visit. I am looking forward to it in spite of the fact that part of the weekend will be taken by meetings and discussions. I really wish I was going to simply be alone in the quiet and the solitude. When I am not part of meetings and discussions, I will spend as much time as possible in the early morning and late night hours sitting in the dark. I have been troubled a lot in recent weeks and months. I have probably not been as connected with God as I usually am. I need some time from my regular life to simply sit in silence. One of the best ways for me to connect with "the Other" is to be silent and still. The monk's day begins with prayers called Vigils at 3:15 AM. Yes, you read that correctly. When I stay at the monastery I always join them. My favorite time at the monastery is the dark and quiet time after these prayers. Generally, that's about 4:00 AM. I leave the large Abbey church and go to the dining room where I toast some whole wheat monk bread and drink some coffee. Afterwards I grab a second cup of coffee and go outside where I sit in the garden and listen as the new day approaches. Sometimes I also sit by the goldfish pond or under the Gingko tree. There in the quiet and in the darkness, God speaks to my heart. This is one of my favorite experiences in life. I know at times I am probably a scandal to some people with my questioning mind and Zen Buddhist mentality but I am also still very much in touch with the Christian God that I have known my entire life. Admittedly, I am less in touch with the church that thinks they own him. The God of the dark night and the star filled sky, who loves the quiet as much as me, always shows up when I am sitting outside in the cool, predawn darkness with my steaming cup of freshly brewed coffee. We have a great time not talking but listening to one another.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Desert Spirituality

As George Carlin used to say, "I'm not sick, I just don't feel good". It's a typical Monday morning and I'm moving a little slow. I continue to be astonished at how quickly weekends seem to pass. It seems like I was just sitting in an Italian restaurant with my wife enjoying a delicious pizza. That was Friday night. In what seems like the blink of an eye I am back at work and now it's Monday. I am dragging a bit. My leg aches and I am not sure why plus I have no energy. Part of that may be from a lack of quality sleep over the weekend. Whenever my granddaughter spends the night I never sleep well. She always sleeps with my wife and me and most of the night she is all over the place and I am hanging on the side of the bed. It's a small price to pay for the enjoyment of her visits. She is so sweet and loving and it does touch me deeply when she says "I love you, Pa Paw"! She is growing up so fast. I want to enjoy every moment I can with her. She is my only grandchild and the prospects for more are bleak. When you only have two children, and one is studying to be a priest, your chances for multiple grandchildren are slim.

From a spiritual perspective, much of the way I have been feeling in recent weeks and months could be described as "being in the desert". Desert spirituality is very strong in the Catholic tradition although most everyday Catholics have no idea what it means. Monasticism is rooted in the desert spirituality of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. When I think of desert spirituality I think of those moments in your life where you feel as though you are just wandering around, feeling lost. I also think of those moments where you feel empty, unmotivated, unloved, and lonely. In such moments God seems to be hiding. My life is full of such moments though many might wonder why. I don't think these feelings are necessarily a reflection on any of the people in my life or on God. My feelings don't imply a failure on their part. If anything, they reflect a failure on my part. Is life empty? Why am I unmotivated? Is there a reason I feel unloved and lonely? Is God hiding? It's very easy in such moments to think that no one really cares about me. Although I know there are people who care about me, I think there is something much deeper going on. When life feels empty, when we feel lonely and unloved, when we feel as though we are wandering in the desert and that God is hiding, I think God is telling us that nothing in this life can fill our needs except him...or her. I am reminded of all of this one more time because of a new book I am reading called "The Hermitage Within". As long as I have been trying to live spiritually, you would think that I would get it by now. But, as the title of this blog suggests, I am continuously "stumbling along the spiritual path". My life is a continual series of awakenings. One more time it is a spiritual dawn and I am slowly seeing the light.

Be Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With

We all have many fears whether we admit it or not. Some of these fears are rational and some are mostly irrational. One of my personal fears is that my life is simply ordinary. There's really nothing wrong with ordinary but I've always wanted my life to be special, to mean something, and to not be insignificant. I've never wanted to be someone who just goes through the motions even though I do that a great deal of the time. It's a little strange for me to have a fear of the ordinary because I have written much in the past about how the extraordinary is often found in the ordinary. In spite of the fact that I actually believe this and many times have experienced it, I am guilty of not always seeing the obvious or appreciating what is right in front of me. Is there really any such thing as an ordinary life? Maybe we won't be famous or change the world but is there any life that doesn't impact others? In the last five years my wife and I have lost three parents, two of them in the last six months. In many ways our parents were very ordinary people but their loss and absence has left a huge void. My Dad is very much on my mind since he died three months ago today. Maybe it's impossible for any of us to appreciate the void we all will leave someday. Our day to day activities may be the ordinary tasks of daily living but our lives are never really ordinary.

One of my favorite rock bands has a CD entitled "Be Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With". This is very good advice. I get so tired of myself for not appreciating what I have and for always falling into the trap of thinking so much is missing in my life. I am often weary of my own inability to be happy. For a self proclaimed optimist, I too often see a half empty glass. My dissatisfaction with much of life seems more intense at this time of my life. Personal issues that have probably always been part of me seem to be demanding attention. I think I have spent much of my life repressing things I don't want to deal with. I think this is typical of people with my type of personality. I am an avoider. I like my peace and harmony so I tend to dismiss troubling thoughts and feelings. It should be easy for me to be happy. Why am I so resistant to it? Lots of people think I have deep insight into many things. If this is true I seem to have insight into everything but myself. I don't like the way I often feel but these feelings should be no surprise either. Two of my favorite spiritual writers had their own brokenness. Thomas Merton, monk, contemplative, and spiritual master, often wanted everything but what he had. Like me he often had moments of joy and bliss, but he also had moments of deep longing. Henri Nouwen, another spiritual master and writer of many books, was a very broken person who was often lonely. He acknowledges this in one of his most famous books entitled "The Wounded Healer". Even the rock star, Pete Townshend, in his biography that I just finished, says, and I paraphrase, "I've come to the conclusion that everyone on a serious spiritual journey is a lonely person". Perhaps it is true that our restlessness, our feelings of emptiness, and our loneliness are all part of the spiritual journey. I guess such a journey is anything but ordinary.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Chloe Visits Pa Paw At Work

Today my granddaughter visited me at work. I was tipped off that it was going to happen but it was still a great feeling to see her walk down the aisle where I sit. Like always, she was a little shy at first and wary of my co-workers. Eventually she got into her comfort zone and the real Chloe began to emerge. Her mother works for the same company as me but these days she works from a home office. While Mommy went off to visit some friends, Chloe sat at my desk and played with my Zen garden. She loves to rake the sand. Her main question today was "Why is Buddha red"? When it was time to go she was very resistant until I promised her that Mommy would take her to McDonald's for lunch. After she left I gathered all the sand that was spread across my desk and I returned my small Zen garden to its original condition. Buddha can now resume his deep meditative state. Today was like a sneak preview of what tomorrow will bring. After I sleep in tomorrow morning and then have a few leisure hours, my wife and I are going to see the new Star Trek movie. I am a huge fan of Star Trek beginning back in the late 60's when the original television show was on. I have spent many years with Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, and all the rest, going where no man has gone before. When I get back from outer space tomorrow I will be heading over to Chloe's house so I can steal her from her parents. This is not very challenging because they never put up a fight. Afterwards, I'll go out to dinner with my wife and Chloe, as well as my son who is home from college. He will be around for about a month before heading back to Indianapolis for a couple of classes that must be completed in order to graduate this summer. Whenever Chloe is at my house for a sleepover, my weekend is very full.

Today is Friday and that is the day I treat myself to a workday lunch at some area restaurant. Usually I go with my friend, Wendy, who is also a co-worker. A while back we worked together in the same department and we really hit it off. She's one of those people who is just easy to be with. Even though I am a lot older, we have similar personalities and much in common. Lunch with Wendy is always enjoyable and we have some great conversations that are usually full of laughter.

I am very happy that another work week is over. I always enjoy my weekends. Next week will be a short work week because I am taking off next Friday and going to the monastery for three days. I am in great need of the silence and solitude provided there.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Balance Is Found In The Tension Of Opposites

I am a dreamer, a romantic, and an idealist. It's a tough combination and a very challenging way to live. I suppose if I am honest I must admit there's also an element of sadness about me because I expect so much from life and it rarely lives up to my expectations. However, I am not all doom and gloom. The payoff for being such a person is that I can quickly be swept off my feet into a perfect Zen moment or a grace filled experience of contemplation. Life will sometimes ambush me with unexpected bliss. C.S. Lewis wrote a book called "Surprised by Joy". I have the book on my bookshelf although I haven't completed it. My appetite for acquiring books is greater than my ability to actually read them. The point is that I am often surprised by joy but I also think there is a price for such surprises. My ability to deeply feel bliss and joy is balanced by the experience of also feeling very sad at times. I don't bounce back and forth. I am not bipolar. I am not usually high or low on the happiness meter. I actually think I am a rather balanced person. I once came up with the thought that "balance is found in the tension of opposites". My personal balance is found in the tension of feeling great joy and, occasionally, deep sadness.

I once read that the so called "mid life crisis" is caused when everything that worked for you in your life up to that point stops working for you and what were weaknesses or secondary strengths and skills suddenly push themselves to the fore front. It's almost like your life is turned upside down in mid life and you must start living with different skills. I don't know if this is really true or not. I recently started thinking about it after taking a "brain test" to determine if I am a left brain or right brain person. On previous tests I always came out as a right brain person and that seemed to make sense to me. This recent test, however, said I was a left brain person. I'm sure most people know the difference but for those that don't, left brain people tend to be more analytical and right brain people are usually more conceptual and abstract. Certainly the right brain concept fits my own perception of myself as a dreamer and one who is somewhat creative. In the workplace, however, I am considered by many as very analytical and numbers oriented. In the workplace I'm very good at "crunching the numbers" and analyzing them. I am considered by many to be a deep thinker who can connect the dots and see the big picture. I think all of this is mostly true but at the end of the day I am still a dreamer, a romantic, and an idealist who loves to be surprised by joy. When joy happens I don't try to analyze it. I just enjoy it.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Living A Life Of Poetry

When I left home this morning it was overcast and slightly cool. The morning air was refreshing as I walked through the park to my office. By midday the sun was shining and the day was warm. Before lunch I went outside for a short walk and a few minutes of simply sitting in the sun enjoying the moment. Most of my workday I was quietly sitting at my desk and working while quiet Zen music played in the background. It was very relaxing and peaceful. In my peacefulness I decided to take a Tao break and read today's thought. In my peaceful mood, it was quite an eye opener.

Banish uncertainty.
Affirm strength.
Hold resolve.
Expect death.

Great! On a day when I am finally feeling some life within me, I am told to expect death. Gee, that's uplifting! What is the Tao trying to tell us today? According to the commentary it is telling us to make our own destiny and do not falter in our resolve to fulfill it. Our resolve to tread the path of life is our best asset. Death is unavoidable but let it not be from a loss of will but rather because our time is over. Overcome the obstacles of life and realize its potential. We will know happiness and we will know sadness. This is the nature of human existence and we must accept this. Everyday our lives grow shorter by twenty four hours. The time to make achievements becomes more precious. We must fulfill everything we want in life and then release our will at the moment of death. Our lives are a creation that dies when we die. When we release our lives and give up our individuality we merge completely with Tao. However, until that moment arrives, we should create the poetry of our lives with toughness and determination.

At first glance all of this may seem a little morbid. Who wants to think about death? I don't think this is really about death. It's about living life to it's fullest. We all waste many of the days of our lives. We get lost in our bad moods, our lethargy, our wandering, and our failed dreams. I like the Tao's idea of "creating the poetry of our lives". We can live very happy and poetic lives without necessarily having great achievements in the eyes of the world. I admit that it is challenging to live life as poetry. So many of us feel bored and trapped in routines and obligations. Somehow, and it's not easy, we must find freedom in the demands of life. The poetry of life is what Thomas Merton saw as a "hidden wholeness". The poetry of life is not always visible. It often lurks right below the surface. If we are to live poetic lives we make see life with the eyes of an artist. We must see below the surface. We must see the "hidden wholeness" of our destiny.

Monday, May 04, 2009

5000+ Visits

Sometime today I had the 5000th hit on this blog. I'm not sure what to think of this. I'm still surprised that anyone wants to read anything I write. When I did daily thoughts on email I often felt good about what I sent out. In those days I felt like I was providing something of value that many people needed. I often felt like a teacher whether I was writing about psychology, contemplation, or Zen. Occasionally I was able to make people feel good with stories of my granddaughter or tales of my rock and roll adventures. I felt as though I was raising the consciousness of many people and giving them a new way to look at themselves and life. In recent months, however, I have felt stagnant and uninspired. Too often I have been negative, probably boring, and a little pretentious to boot. Sometimes I feel pressured to be inspiring but I know I do this to myself. To be honest I don't think anyone can be intentionally inspiring. If I am inspiring to anyone, it is a happy accident or the desire of a higher power to use me for that purpose. My life is very ordinary and so am I. I'm just an everyday person who has tried to share the thoughts that orbit in my head and the simple adventures of my life and to do this as honestly as I can with language that is enjoyable to read. In spite of my ups and downs as a person I know I have some faithful readers who've been with me for a while. I also know there are strangers all over the United States and around the world who find me by accident through the power of Google. A few of you have become long distance friends. So, whether you are an old friend, a new friend, or complete stranger, I appreciate your visit and I hope that I sometimes write something that you enjoy. Blogging is something that doesn't usually give you much of a payback. As I have said before, when I post something on this blog it is like scattering seeds to the wind. You have no idea where they will land or if they grow into anything. I don't expect responses to anything I write but I am always happy to hear from people. So, if you are one of the 5000+ who have received one of my seeds and it made your day a little better, I'd love to hear from you. Even bloggers need a little encouragement!

Friday, May 01, 2009

Music Is Life

Last night, after a pizza dinner at a local restaurant, I went to my neighborhood Border's Book Store where they were having a 50% off sale on all music CD's. I was like an unsupervised child in an all you can eat candy store. Using some restraint but full of unbridled joy and enthusiasm, I went up and down the aisles with the eye of an eagle scooping up one great deal after another. I spent $75 but I walked out with $150 worth of CD's. I don't normally spend that much at one time on music purchases but I was rewarding myself for a cash bonus I received from my employer. The rest of the money will be saved for my next family vacation. Arriving home with my bag of goodies reminded me once again of the great joy that music gives me. As I have written before, music is more than just entertainment for me. Music is life. I know there are probably snobby and serious music aficionados who would question the talent and musical quality of many of the artists that I enjoy. Just for the record, I really like composers like Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. However, the music that is the soundtrack to my life is rock and roll. Yesterday's purchases were by the Who, the Cream, the Band, Jethro Tull, the Jerry Garcia Band, and just because I am occasionally in a Key West, Margaritaville, Cheeseburger in Paradise frame of mind, some live Jimmy Buffet. I also bought a collection of 40 songs from the summer of 1967. If you were part of my gang in the "Summer of Love", these would be the songs blasting from my tinny little car radio as we drove around in my 1962 VW Beetle. I love my rock and roll and I make no apologies for it.

Due to the kindness of my boss, I unexpectedly got off work early today. I drove a few blocks away from my office, parked my car, and walked to 4th Street Live which is an entertainment section of downtown Louisville. There was lots of activity going on there. Roadies were setting up for a concert and scores of people were sitting in outdoor cafes having a drink. There's also a huge Border's Books there so I thought I would check that out. I succumbed to buying a couple more CD's...Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young plus one by the Grateful Dead. On my way out I bought a sugar free vanilla latte before finding a table out on the street. I love to watch people and 4th Street Live is a great place to do that with it's eclectic assortment of humanity. There was a Colonel Saunders look alike (think fried chicken), a heavily pierced Goth couple at the table next to me, and lots of beautiful women in town for the Derby. I am old, not dead, so I do notice beautiful women when they walk...or strut... pass me. I make a big deal sometimes about my love of solitude. The truth is, however, I also love being in a happening place with good vibes in the air and a wide assortment of colorful people.

Recalibrating My Mind

Today is Friday and I always feel good on Friday. Another work week has drawn to a close and another weekend awaits me. When I walked outside this morning everything felt great. The air was cool and the day seemed full of promise. Last night I had a small epiphany. Every Thursday I receive the local Catholic newspaper in the mail. I usually don't read all of it but there is one column by a local priest that I always like. I've met him several times but don't really know him except through his writings. His writings alone make me like him. Reading his article yesterday made me think of my own writing. There are many people who only know me through my writing. If their introduction to me has only been through my writing of the last several weeks they may not have a very good opinion of me. I've done a lot of whining and constant complaining is not really who I am. The local writer that I refer to above quoted one of my favorite songs in his column yesterday and it really hit home with me. It was a song written by Jackson Browne that was also performed by the Eagles. The song is titled "Take it Easy" and the lyric that he quoted was "Don't let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy". Lately I have been doing exactly this. I've been falling victim to the wheels of negativity spinning in my head. Some scientists have said that our minds are programmed to be negative unless we intentionally think positive thoughts. In the Buddhist tradition we are told that our suffering comes from our own mind more than external circumstances. The sad thing is that I know all this and still I fell into the trap. So, going forward, I will recalibrate my mind one more time to refrain from negative thinking. I will quit feeling sorry for myself and I will once again strive to live with a grateful heart and a joyful spirit.