Today begins Rosh Hashanah, and this poem was inspired albeit poorly done, in reverence and appreciation for the profound teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Though he would point out that I have read merely his books, Rabbi Heschel, a man of faith for all religions, nations, and peoples, through his books of profound thoughts and faith has taught me more than I can begin to express in my own small words of gratitude. Shalom to you and yours — Jane
The idea of a creed tends to bring up religious connotations and perhaps because of that, the idea of having a creed tends to imply a status quo, a static belief system, and a do-or-die pact between like-minded people who join together over ideas that determine an “in-status” and “out-status” for anyone who does not adhere to the CREED (in capital letters).
A creed is defined as “a set of beliefs or aims that guide someone’s actions”. Sadly, to look at many of the religious or national creeds today you would have to assume that the last part of the definition has been irrevocably deleted, so that a creed is merely a “set of beliefs or aims”. No action required. On the other hand, many groups, communities, and religious or political entities, have creeds that imply definite action without the members of said group having any idea what those actions really and truly say about what they must believe to act in said ways. For instance, patriots who storm the capital are, to those who do not claim to be following the same creed, foolishly and blindly or willfully and grievously, acting on a belief system that is in fact quite the opposite of patriotic beliefs in a true democracy. Or take the example of someone who joins what is recognizably a religious cult. While all religions have cult-like attributes, the victim of a person or personages who create creeds around themselves in order to control and manipulate the actions of others for personal or group gain reveals the “clear and present danger” of man-made creeds. Because while we may belong to a church, mosque, or rotary or mason’s club, full of a membership that sincerely believes that our creeds are inspired, divine, good for the common good of the group, beneficent, helpful, unifying, heave-bound, or even “God-breathed”– the plain truth is, every creed is simply a human-made attempt to put into words their “beliefs and aims”. The supposed God-inspired or patriotically-sound attributes are by default, then, at risk of misuse, misinterpretation, and mistakes as all humanly-created ideas can be. It is good when looking at religious or national creeds to keep in mind that if there is a God, no one has ever completely understood or known the “mind” of said God. And secondly, no one, and this means No One, can take an historical creed, nationalistic or religious, or otherwise, and apply it perfectly, or even realistically and practically, throughout time and place.
So, what is my point, you ask? What is my “aim” in this focus on the idea of creeds? I have grown up in a world of specific groups of people, each of which group believes that we memorize and recite our creed or pledge in order to prove what we believe forever, and forever, in God we trust, America the Beautiful, and blah,blah,blah grace, liberty, and justice for all, amen. Hands on heart, or folded before us in prayer, we worship the idea of the words, without having to follow through with the actions required by saying we believe those words are guides to our “purposes, actions, and aims”.
Let me give you a simple reflection on two popular creeds in groups of people that I have belonged to. They come from creeds I have memorized and recited in front of groups of other people, solemnly and faithfully pronouncing the words and by doing so, implying with the rest of the people with me that I plan on living a life that adheres to the principles in that creed. The first example, for me, would be the “Pledge of Allegiance”, which I have memorized and which I used to recite (often under the duress of group-think begun in elementary school). (Disclaimer here: I no longer choose to recite the pledge of allegiance, finding its meaning opaque and faulty. You can read elsewhere in this blog, why long ago, for religious and spiritual reasons, I began to choose to stand respectfully during the Pledge of Allegiance, but not mouth these words of allegiance to what for me, had become an icon or an idol.)
America has some really excellent creeds, like our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, but our pledge to a flag, which is tragically for most people, the only American creed they have any real knowledge of, is not-creed worthy. And if you look closely, it more resembles a “bait and switch” than an important set of beliefs. To simplify this thought for now, if I am pledging my loyalty to a symbol, then I should understand what that symbol stands for, because of course a symbol is a GIANT container for BIG IDEAS. Tragically, I know more than many, as someone who has tried to teach symbols, metaphors, and other mind-expanding literary devices for years, the average person, whether a high-school drop-out or a Harvard grad, have little clue about the immense importance of and very real truths inherent in symbols, word-symbols and image symbols alike. Let me put it another way, when the American Revolutionaries were fighting for what they believed to be their freedom, the symbol of a flag and a pledge to support this flag were profoundly meaningful to give credence to their actions. For soldiers in any country who are fighting for their country’s ideals, a pledge said around the symbolic icon of said country can be an incredibly important and unifying way to more deeply and subconsciously understand the meaning of the actions of war. But that brings us to a different problem – when a flag represents merely a nation’s rights at any cost to other nations or people-groups, then we have put the horse before the cart, and we are acting first, and re-forming the intentions of the creed to justify the actions. This is the opposite of what a creed is meant to do. A creed is meant to provide borders around as well as guidance for actions
Of course, even sillier than thinking that a creed only needs to be about a piece of cloth we fly for national identification purposes, are those who have come to believe that singing a song before a sports event is creed material. And to make matters worse, most people don’t know the words to this “creed song”. And if they do in fact know the words, as I do, can they hit the high notes that are meant to soar our belief system into a heavenly realm? As a matter of fact, what has become known as the American national anthem, is merely an historical story-song, a hind-sight perspective, of how and when and who won our independence; an event that happened way, way back when. (Although in terms of keeping an historical perspective, compared to other nations and countries, America’s young hold on life should have given us a little more humility, but alas that has never seemed to be first and foremost among our brash, young nation’s traits.) The creed-song of our country in fact, holds no creed-worthy tenets and again, if one were led to believe that one should act on the belief system of said anthem, then once more we are reduced to believing that all Americans should care about is a piece of red, white and blue cloth and a song that we sing to worship sporting events.
From a true perspective of belief systems, if a person really knew what they were pledging allegiance to when pledging to the flag of America or singing the song of American freedoms, they would applaud those who take a knee rather than mouth some words, and join them on their knees in a fight for the “justice for all”. After all, that is what Americans say that we have pledged to uphold. And furthermore, rather than punish protestors, if we believed our national creeds, we would prosecute anyone – ANYONE—who incited people to storm the building that is the epicenter of those flag-creed beliefs; and we would remove from office those people who pledged allegiance to grant “liberty for all”. Because creeds can only take so much self-centered, ego-driven, or greed-tainted abuse and still have any rational meaning at all. Funny, how two people can claim to believe in and uphold the very same creed, and have such different aims and actions as a result of said belief. To see this even more clearly, one must look at religious creeds, which have become so written in stone over the centuries as to become the worshipped, rather than the worshipful. One only has to look at the recent abuse of creeds in both Catholic and evangelical institutions to see that our creeds can all too easily take the place of our God. After all a dead creed is so much easier to live by and with than a living God.
Just like everything ever written or orally transmitted to people and people groups, all communication has two important elements: Audience and Purpose. In creed-creating, one can see that one problem that is to be addressed is that an audience never remains the same. It doesn’t take a rocket-scientist or linguist, a founding father or theologian to understand, that if one accepts the changing hue, temperament, needs, and make-up of the audience, then a creed needs to be either flexible, or changeable. It needs to evolve, just like people and nations and religions need to evolve. If a creed is written for one audience, like a fledgling nation made up of other nation-groups, or a young religion made of up Jews and Gentiles, or for metaphoric purposes, let’s just say, if the audience was once a bunch of five-year olds, but now are a vast throng of twenty-somethings, or sixty-somethings, well, the creed you are asking everyone to base their beliefs and actions on, either needs to morph and transform and evolve, or you need to throw it out and start over.
The second example of creed-following for me comes from not my national identity but my religious upbringing. Now, take care here, because in my own beloved country of America, far, far too many people seem to have confused the nationalistic with the religious, making both the creedal tenants of a separate church and state ideologies, both tragically abused and ridiculously meaningless. But, as another example of creed-use and abuse, one particular religious creed that I have recited in unison quite a few times in a long, long life of church going, is called The Nicene Creed. This is a religious set of beliefs that was written (and rewritten) in around the mid 300’s A.D. by the religious leaders of the Christian Church; and it has ever since been accepted by all forms of Christianity, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. This creed helps not only with understanding the interplay of intended Audience with belief systems, but the dangerous power behind Purpose in writing out a set belief system intended to inform actions.
The Nicene Creed is an excellent example of why, in order to understand the meaning of any creed or written set of beliefs, one must understand its purpose. In other words, to understand the WHAT, one must understand the WHO, but most important of all, one must understand and keep grappling with the WHY.
The Nicene Creed was written with the express purpose of “weeding out” and “gathering in”. It was written 300 years after the death of the supposed leader of Christianity, Jesus Christ, in order that the now powerful arms of the ruling class of bishops and “theologians” and paid professionals of the Church, could have a yardstick by which to measure if a congregant had a correct belief system or not. While the American documents of nation formation were written as a reaction to what had come before, they were also written with a great hope in what would and would not come after. The Nicene Creed, conversely, was written, not with a “hope and a dream” for a better world, like the American Declaration of Independence was, but the Nicene Creed was written expressly as a reaction AGAINST those who were questioning what had already become the status quo of a new religion. The Nicene Creed was written, as sadly, especially religious creeds often are, to protect the people who were in powerful positions and who “liked things the way they were”, in order that nothing would change what those in power had already determined the set-in-stone tenets of this new religion would follow. The Nicene Creed was written with the aim of ammunition against the threats that had arisen to the religion that had morphed out of the life, teachings, and hope of Jesus Christ, who never wrote a single document for us to use in the future, let alone a creed. One only has to look to the current year of 2021 to see how often we use creeds of national and religious institutions not to bring about meaningful and hopeful, productive change for all, but rather to prevent change and keep the status quo for those who benefit from the past, not those who need a foundation in the present, or a dream for the future.
It came as a shock for me to revisit the so-called standard bearer of creeds of the Christian religion and realize, that just like the American national anthem, The Nicene Creed, is not at all a creed – it is a written account of a group of beliefs about the history of the planet, the history of a man called Jesus, and the history of God. And like a crack over the head, I realized that all these centuries of reciting this creed and taking it as “gospel” has in fact, only led to one discernible aim and one obvious purpose – to believe this creed is to be “in”, “chosen”, part of “the correct group”; and to veer in any part of this creed, is to be “out” , a heretic, not one of the chosen group. And it doesn’t matter one bit, how those who recite this creed as a founding and important and even “Godly” document—it doesn’t matter at all how we act or live. We have reduced belief to intellectual assent and nothing more. We have reduced creeds to the level of secret handshakes or long-lasting party games (“party” has two meanings here). We have taken the meaning of what we call “faith” and reduced it not to a relationship with a living God or a relationship with the people we live with, but to a stagnant set of tenents, that barely effect our knowledge base, let alone affect our hearts, souls, or actions.
A creed can imply, for some brave and intrepid souls, an aim or an action. So, let’s say I still want to cling to my religious creed as something that should influence my actions. Let’s take some of the words of The Nicene Creed for example. If I actually believe for instance that “God is the maker of heaven and earth”, as my creed proclaims; then consequently, I should treat the earth as if it is God’s. If the whole earth, planet, people, trees, plants, animals, air, water – if all were made by a Supernatural Being that exists somewhere beyond the Earth but also within our World, and Who loves the whole planet as something She/He/They created, then how should I and my fellow creed-followers ACT? How should we, based on our creed, treat the Whole World, the created essence of Our God? Well, if actions speak louder than words, one would have to conclude as the inspired words found in James 2:14-26 does, that “faith without works is dead”.
To take a simplistic approach to deducing what I might mean when I say I believe in the ideas that have been written down in the Nicene Creed, let’s pretend I really did believe that when my group of fellow Nicene Creed believers recited this, we were joining together to commit to actions implied by the “beliefs or aims” presented in the words, and that by committing to the beliefs that would lead to actions we were also saying that we would hold ourselves and each other RESPONSIBLE for following through on how best to act on those beliefs and to LIVE OUT those beliefs in our community and in the world at large. If that were the case, what would it mean for me to say with others: “I look for the life of the world to come” and how would I act in order to live into a world that I prefer to the one we are making now?
A creed, to be any use or any good at all must be open to change, and in constant evolution, just like any group, or church, or nation, or club, or human being, should be. The ironic thing is that for a creed to be consistent, it must be open to new interpretations and new ways of living into the truths supposedly inherent in the written words. To be not only deeply true, but critically useful, a belief system must be a kind of oxymoronic foundation, that is both bedrock and solidly based in eternal truths, and also completely and eternally changing with the deeper understanding amidst the new realities and new responsibilities of the place and time in which humans live. A creed should be as evolutionary as every living thing in the created world actually is. What a person believes should be as grounded in what a person should be as nature is grounded to the Earth. To Be-lieve is to let my Be-ing, Live.
I have begun to look more intensely and intentionally, at the many sources of my own belief system and I have been humbled by the great writers, teachers, radicals, and most of all the “Do-ers” who have created the creeds that aim to guide us, both as citizens of the world and for some us, perhaps and hopefully, as “citizens of heaven”. And as I look and read, and reread, meditate, and grapple and struggle with these creeds, and find new creeds from other places, times, nations, and religions to wrestle with, I am trying to turn my telescope around the other way. I am trying to observe my actions, both current and past, and ask myself this:
What is my Purpose? What do my actions tell me and others about what I really believe?
What do I actually do to support the nation and community I live in, to the best of my ability in my understanding of what it means to be a good citizen with care and caring, and “freedom and justice” for all?
What do I honestly believe about my spiritual identity and the spiritual identity of my “audience”? What parts of my faith are “dead” and inactive? And how strong and true is the faith of my works? How much of what I say I believe is Alive, in connection with A Living God? Is the “Why” of who I am, leading me “further up and further in”, to bring Life and Be Life?
So I am, in effect, as all of us are, whether we know it or not, daily writing our own creed. We are either consciously or subconsciously, allowing new creeds to help us change for something that can simply be described as “better”; or we are allowing our fears and stubborn foolishness to keep us moored to the shoals of dead creeds, useful only for self-importance or a false sense of security and power. I began a little exercise, which I may write about later, but now is just a rambling musing and jotting down of ideas that I think I could look at as “My Current (but maybe not Forever, depending on revelations to come) Life Creed”.
I encourage you to try writing out what you think you believe to be foundational to your worldview, your creed. Then write out as many of your life’s actions that you can match-up to prove you have lived according to these beliefs. It is not for the faint of heart, but it is for those who desire a little humility with their hope today. I am finding as I meditate on this exercise more of the who of myself, more of the who and who not of my audience, and more of the Who of The One Who Is. I am also finding more of what the true connection is between my imagined purpose and my true purpose. I am finding that I really have never had much of an idea of what it all means in light of eternity, but that it is enough for me not to know some great purpose, as creeds would lead us to believe. It is enough for my purpose to Be me and to act in a way that I would like all humans to act towards each other. My faith can still be “the essence of things unseen but hoped for”; and my life creed can be the “peace that passes understanding”, the wholeness that means simply that I want to be active in whatever Goodness and Love are doing in the world, no matter whose creed is behind it.
I don’t know much, but I do seek for much more, and in that is, with a lot of grace, I believe, my salvation; for as that brilliant creed-buster, St. Paul wrote:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (I Corinthians 13).
And any creed without Love at the center is no creed worth following. And Love is always the Ultimate Creed.
NOTE: The metaphor of being a worm is not for everyone. There are as indicated in the above musing, far too many people who are made to feel like they are nothing but “worker-worms”, so to speak. But the metaphor of being a worm was helpful for me. It comes perhaps originally from an old hymn that I used to sing in the churches of the Midwest where I grew up and began to grow into what I hope is an ever evolving faith and worldview. I want to become more. Well, that is it, I guess, just “more”.
The following words to the hymn by Isaac Watts called out to me today from the hallows of history. Today –What and Who calls out to you, like a Parent to Her child, asking:
“Will you represent?”
Alas and Did My Savior Bleed, by Isaac Watts (c. 1707)
Alas, and did my Savior bleed And did my Sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred head For such a worm as I?
Was it for sins that I had done He groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity, grace unknown And love beyond degree.
My God, why would You shed Your blood So pure and undefiled To make a sinful one like me Your chosen, precious child?
Well might the sun in darkness hide And shut His glories in When Christ, the mighty Maker, died For man, the creature’s, sin.
Thus might I hide my blushing face While His dear cross appears Dissolve my heart in thankfulness And melt my eyes to tears.
My God, why would You shed Your blood So pure and undefiled To make a sinful one like me Your chosen, precious child?
Some habits are hard to break and some habits are hard to make. In so much else that we have lost in terms of ethics and morality, I think we have lost the idea that there is a difference between a mistake and a sin. And consequently, we have lost this idea that good personal qualities are not a matter of hoping for them but of practicing them.
A sin is anything we know to be less than good or right and something that can hurt ourselves or another, and we do it anyway, purposefully or carelessly. There is also a difference between a feeling, a character trait, and a virtue. A virtue is something that we create, nurture, act upon, not out of whole-cloth, but out of that which every human being has the possibility of knowing and striving for. One of the most commonly known vices is gluttony, and yet while we may easily see it in others, we rarely see it in ourselves until after we’ve eaten the giant bag of Red Hot Doritos, swilled it down with a six-pack and we get the stomach-ache we deserve, at which point we still don’t see it as a sin against our body as much as a “mistake”. A common virtue is patience and yet we judge our boss or teacher for being impatient with our ignorance, while we attribute our own snapping and losing patience with the faults of the other person or just being “tired or hungry”.
We, at least in our Western world of privilege and ease, have mostly lost the idea that while we cannot control the feelings of an instant, we certainly can control the actions that come out of those feelings. But we can only do so, if we have practiced controlling and shaping and substituting bad actions for good actions. Much like working out with weights to increase one’s ability to perform at a sport, we must make the practice of good habits part of a daily routine (with time off for good behavior or Sabbaths or rest). And practicing to be good is important, much like practicing a sport or an instrument is important to be ready to sprint or perform when the moment of action arrives. You can’t hope you’ll win or flawlessly play, you have to have made habits that allow you to respond without thinking. Deciding to choose to live virtuously is a life-long commitment; much as professional musicians never stop practicing scales, we must see our lives as any artist would see her abilities to create. The glorious and divine thing about being human, is that it is never too late to start being creative with who we want to be. Today is another day in which I can see myself as the artist of my own life, worthy of practice in the virtues that make me the best creation I can be. If we focused on the idea that humans are truly creatures of habit, then we might understand the insidiousness of the habits we form for evil and the habits we form for good. Then we can understand the truly divine power we each have to break and make habits.
A bad action, whether it is over-indulging ourselves or gossiping about a neighbor, becomes what we might call a sin against self or sin against another, when we let an action become an un-examined habit. As an example, from my own life, over the past several years I have felt a responsibility to know about the evils and lies of our political leaders and to speak out against those things. However, lately, reading and thinking and worrying and angsting over those things has become a habit, something I cannot seem to stop doing, even with the hope of change around the corner, even as it has effected my peace, even as it has eaten up time that could be better spent in other pursuits. There has become something perversely pleasurable in wallowing in the doo-doo of others. This is ultimately not good for me, so when I keep indulging in it, I am sinning against myself. It is also however, not good for my brother or sister, when I keep beating my head against the wall of their stubborn stupidity or unethical choices to try to change or help them. I am a habitual “helper” but when you try to help someone who doesn’t want your help, it is a sin.
To break these bad habits, I have gotten myself into, I have to try to form different habits. So rather than beginning my morning with the various newspapers I subscribe to, I spend it reading spiritually invigorating books or by some time with silent meditation and prayer. I don’t turn on my computer. I find a space with a small lamp’s circle, a pencil for making notes, and a “teacher” whose written words energize my understanding and determination to make the world a better place and make the places in my own soul better as well. Getting outside and walking in the beauty of Nature is also good. Doing something anonymously for someone who is hungry, in prison, or lonely is also good. Practicing non-aggrandizing kindness, especially to those who make me mad or grumpy or who won’t appreciate it or praise me, is an excellent way to form a different habit of kindness and helpfulness. Actions that help me break habits that hurt me or hurt others are choosing to become ethics in action. Those actions become virtues when they become habits. Otherwise, they are too often “one offs”, reflective of how I feel, what I’m “in the mood for”, how much I care, or whether any one else is “looking”; and so they are not forces “at the ready” when I am “not feeling it”. Virtues are good habits that take over even when we do not will them to.
The other thing that for me is completely necessary is to truly return to an idea that I am not only not alone in the Universe, I am being watched. We have lost the idea of the “Constant Onlooker”. This may be because we think a belief system is enough to “save us” no matter how we behave for some future reality; but of course we should be humbly reminded that “even devils believe in God and Goodness and tremble”. It may be because we have never felt there is anything other than our molecules existing in a particular meaningless space and time with other molecules. But whether it is the foolishness of a morphed and broken religion or the sadness of an atheism, to have lost the idea that there is somehow something Divine that takes notice of us humans and our Earth, is a great tragedy and has much to do with how we have devolved to this place in time on our poor beleaguered planet and our insensitive, insensible, irrational, and sinful treatment of the planet and all creatures living on it.
Whether my Constant Onlooker is a God, or the Cosmos, or my Passed Relative, or the Angels, we have a great throbbing need to feel watched over with care. And when we think we are so very alone and that No One is watching, overseeing, caring, — yes — even judging or orchestrating us to live out a better way — when we choose to idolize the primacy of self-satisfaction and momentary feelings, of one-upmanship or passive/ aggressive complaining — then we truly choose to be alone in a Universe screaming for us to recognize that there is an Onlooker of human behavior, down to the very individual that you are and that I am.
It is often difficult to fight the depression that I feel when I feel that I do not matter, but there is another way. I can form the habit of worshipping That Who, that El Roi who sees me — ME — little old who I am but more importantly who I can BE — ME. To be seen is the first step away from breaking the habits of vice and towards making the habits of virtue.
Vice is about me, myself and I alone in the Universe. Virtue is about a Community of Reality in which I am not only not alone, but I am so important, so valued, so looked after, so much a part of The Whole, that my every singular thought and deed matters. While my individual mistakes and sins may not matter in the long run, the habits I form and whether they are formed for Good or for Evil, matter in a Grand Scheme of that which I can only glimpse and imagine.
To get started: This chart of Virtues and Vices is attributed to Aristotle. I could meditate on just the titles for hours.
We might look at these vices and virtues side by side with the words of that other great sage, St. Augustine, who among other things said, “I “Sin” / Err, therefore, I am”. To be human, to actually be the best human we can be, is to understand that we don’t just “goof up”, but we sin, and sin boldly and sin habitually. When we recognize that there is Someone, that some of us call “God”, who is creative and imaginative enough to give humans the ability to choose Life — life abundant and whole and free — then we recognize that same Being Who Loves us enough to perpetually create in and through us, is a SomeOne Who is watching over us, is looking out for us, is there and here for us, and is trying every which way to point to The Way — The Tao. There is Something in the Universe that cares about my every action; and rather than letting that be a heavy burden or a fear of judgement or a way for those in power to control me as organized religion and political powers have so often done and still do, I can allow that wisdom to free me from vice and habits of negativity that can ruin my life and the lives of others. Then I can open up my heart and soul, my body and mind, and my actions, deeds, and words to replace the negative habits with positive virtues and the good habits that will create new life in me and open up more room for love, both for myself and for others.
It is not enough to recognize the vices in others, even if we have worked hard not to allow those same vices in ourselves. The lack of a vice is simply a lack, a negative sum, not a positive one. I must of course look firmly at any habitual negative action or thought I have and try to pull it out by the roots and toss it in the dung heap. But I must also see any open spaces or blank lines in my ledger and replace the emptiness with virtue. It is not enough not to sin, but we must seize our responsibility for action and make it a habit; for as The Great Teacher said:
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The theologians and the leaders in power — go ahead and do and observe whatever they tell you, but do not do the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They foist on others heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, churches, and halls of power; and they thrive on greetings in the marketplaces, news coverage, and being called important titles by others. But you are not to be called by important titles, for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. And call no man your father/priest/leader on earth, for you have one Father/High Priest/Leader, who is in All the Universe, all the Heavenly Places. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (paraphrased slightly from Matthew 23)
I have lately retracted the finger I have had pointing towards others and tried to focus more on the four fingers pointing back at myself. Rather than being a negative experience, making me feel bad about myself, I find it energizing, comforting, and oh so very hopeful of all I can still accomplish and be within my very little own self. Much like when the weather changes and I can do some serious “Spring Cleaning”, I am ready to clean out some space in my heart, mind and soul, in order to make room for something better, cleaner, brighter, truer, and nobler; and to practice intentionally the greatest virtue of all — that of loving both self and others. And in this way, I long and desire to become more in tune and loving of The One Who Sees and Cares.
I know it is awfully old-fashioned of me, but to see the tendencies of making and breaking habits as something as eternally important as choosing vice or virtue, makes me feel much less alone in The Universe. The more I see my own sins and broken pieces, the more I hold out hope for Wholeness. The more I see the errors on my life’s page, the more I sense I am a part of a Great Story of Our Humanity, in which I play, if only a small and unknown character, a still quite valuable part. Like the character who is a catalyst in a novel, I hope to not understand but simply obey and do that which is my own ethical, virtuous-leaning part to play in The Story. Like tuning an old piano, I hope to change the dissonance of certain vices and make in-tune new habits of virtue. In this way, I do not play a solo performance, but am part of that great Orchestra lead by the Director of All Directors. Today, I shall practice creating more harmony in my own life, and humbly, prayerfully, hopefully in the lives of others, and I shall listen to and add to The Song.
Lent is fast upon us which for me, among other things, means a time of practicing the intentional spiritual discipline of silence, not to escape although that is healthful sometimes too, but to find more strength to translate faith into action. Faith does not grow without action and action can not sustain us without faith.
This quote from the poet Christian Wiman says it convinct-ingly and beautifully:
“Silence is the language of faith. Action – be it church or charity, politics or poetry – is the translation. As with any translation, action is a mere echo of its original, inevitably faded and distorted, especially as it moves farther from its source. There the comparison ends, though, for while it is true that action degrades that original silence, and your moments of meditative communion with God can seem a world away from the chaotic human encounters to which those moments compel you, it is also true that without these constant translations into action, that original, sustaining silence begins to be less powerful, and then less accessible, and then finally impossible.” (Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss)
I am as in so many things, I guess, rather a weird, strange loner sort of “lent-practitioner”. Lent for me is not so much of a “church thing” as it is a life-thing.No one else in my family practices it and the people and friends I do have that may observe the season of Lent do so because it is their job to preach it or because they have done so all of their lives. I did not grow up practicing Lent, but I did grow up amongst the small farms intersected by straight rows of roads, farms that used to dot the Midwest of America like prayer books in pews. It was a place where people lived into Seasons. It was a place where people lived into the Seasons of their Protestant beliefs in the same way they lived into the seasons of the soil and the weather and their families.
The word “Lent”, means simply “Spring”. Spring, where I live today in SoCal, is not all that different than Fall or Winter. It is a little different than our hot, dry summers, but still, not so much. But just as it is everywhere on this wonderful globe, humans will celebrate (or groan about) seasons. And just as it is everywhere, Spring is a time when we feel a sense of anticipation. We are beings meant to be in tune with seasons. They are after all perfect metaphors for our very lives. Yoko Ono says of Life’s passing Seasons:
“Spring passes and one remembers one’s innocence.
Summer passes and one remembers one’s exuberance.
Autumn passes and one remembers one’s reverence.
Winter passes and one remembers one’s perseverance.”
Spring is that wonderful time when we feel innocent again, because the Winter has passed. Whether you find yourself in Southern California or Siberia or Paris or Kenya, Spring means youth, growth, planting, change, hope. Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.”
Spring is one of my favorite seasons because I love anticipation. I am one of those people who love the mysteries of the pregnant times. I am silently punishing of those who would reveal the ending before I have enjoyed all the chapters. I am “all in” during the preparation stages, and feel morosely depleted when it’s “all over”. Not everyone is like this, for instance my delightful mother never met a secret she wanted to keep or a gift she wanted to wait to open. We are, if embraced, a wonderful world of unique human beings. Remember when that thing went around where colors that you looked good in were assigned seasons? My age may say “Winter” but my heart is Spring.
Most of us lucky enough to live long enough miss the innocence of our youth. However, most of us also would admit that we don’t really want to stay children forever. To be the best human one can be, is to be purposeful, and that means to “grow-up” and grow-out. Just as the span of a person’s life is metaphorically marked by seasons, so too, is each year, and beyond that, for spiritually maturing adults, seasons are something we must determine, something internal and intentional. If I truly want to grow as a person with both sustaining faith and purposeful action, I can (and must) determine the seasons my soul needs consistently, perhaps daily, in order to expand, enlarge, and care for not only itself, but for others.
Growth means that we must continually go through all the seasons. The small farms of my youth or perhaps the plants now perking up your kitchen window provide the similes for how we were created to exist. Winter means dying to things that are useless and unhealthy. Spring means to anticipate, to nurture, to hope, to plan ahead. Summer is the time of reaping the harvest of one’s hope and faith. Autumn is the grateful sigh at the end of the hard work and when we share the bounty we have reaped.
We are growing some seeds in our kitchen right now. Today they lie in wait under faithfully wetted paper towels—little specks of dark brown that look like nothing more than useless dirt-freckles. But we know. We know what is possible with a little patience and a little faith in those small brownish seeds. We know because we have lived through Spring before. We have done the difficult work of digging at hard earth before. We have planted before. We have weeded before. We have watched in anticipation of small green shoots before. We have tasted the fruits of our work and waiting before. We have seen buds become bounty, before. Before it has been Spring and so we can, with hope, plant for what comes After.
Before, there is faith. After, there must be action. And then faith again. And then action again. As the poet-philosopher says truly, “to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose on this great planet, under the heavens.”
My practice of Lent is based on my own journey towards meaning. I have a particular and peculiar worldview that believes there is meaning beyond what I can see and taste today. I am a nobody, a little brownish dirt-freckle sitting hopefully on Life’s Counter, a human-seed still growing, but with barely enough faith to believe that somehow my small little self will be worth anything at all ever. But that is where my own kind of faith in the future and a germinating hope in the passing and renewing of Seasons comes in. One of the greatest humans who lived and a profound teacher on living, was one who said this about how we should live like seeds in a different way of understanding our world: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches.” ( Jesus in Matthew 13)
A person does not have to practice a religiously orchestrated season such as Lent, but all humans need to find the cleared paths through the fields, the tools to scythe the weeds, the seeds to nurture along and hide in the dark, rich earth; and the difficult but fulfilling work that can only be done by one’s own hands.
We all need to have faith that tomorrow, the seeds will grow into food or flowers. We all need to act on that faith. We may be the smallest of seeds, but as that great gardener of souls, Mother Teresa once said, “not all of us can do great things, but all of us can do small things with great love.”
As Christian Wiman says, faith untranslated into action, are like seeds that stay forever dormant. But action without faith, which is really just another word for Love, will never feed our own souls nor nourish the needy of this world.
If we are the seeds, then faith is the compost, hope is the water, and Love is the Sunshine.
We must create often and intentionally seasons of dormancy, with the anticipation and hope that the rains and sunshine and rich loam will be provided.
We are all different kinds of seeds, unique in our needs and our growth patterns. Just like plants, we all have different requirements, different looks, different attributes, different gifts to the world, and different ways of finding nourishment to grow. But we all have seasonal needs and, hopefully, we all can still find within our small selves, a desire to resist remaining dormant and to seek growth and enlarge our souls and give something meaningful to others. I may grow from a religiously orchestrated Lenten observance. You may grow from a hike up Mt. Kailesh or a sabbatical from your job. Some of us grow into flowers that, as love does, give beauty and solace to others; and some of us grow into broccoli or cabbage that can, as truth may do, purge some of the poop out of the world. But all of us need the same basic things in order to grow to maturity, We all need a little faith, a little hope, a little usefulness, and a whole lot of love.
What we need to grow and to act and to keep believing, will come from what as seeds, we already have within ourselves, and as plants, from what we must partake of from without ourselves. And just as the seasons turn round and round, all will come in due time. But to riff on that old idiom, if we are to bloom where we are planted, we must live with purpose and hope into all the seasons that this very day may take us.
For me, purposefully planting seasons of giving up and letting go within my soul, spiritual germination tactics, if you will, is like becoming a small mustard seed. Then, in hope, I wait for that which with a little sunshine and a little rain, a little faith and a little love, will grow into something large enough, something active enough, something as big as a tree enough, and something as nourishingly truthful and caringly loving enough, so that others may find room and love in which to nest.