Tag Archives: Love

St. Francis: Before and After

While the life of St. Francis as we know it is a pastiche of a few facts and a lot of myths, everyone agrees that he went through a series of profound and wrenching experiences that lead to a radical change of his values and his way of life.  There are two sculptures here in Assisi that capture his process of conversion in ways that I find graphic and moving.  In front of the main Basilica we see this:

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and at the lovely church/hermitage of San Damiano we see this:

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The broken man on the horse represents Francis returning to Assisi in shame after renouncing his glorious dreams of military adventure.  Two years earlier, he had been on the losing side of a bloody battle between the cities of Assisi and Perugia, and after seeing many of his friends hacked to pieces, he was imprisoned in a dungeon for a year before his father managed to raise his ransom.  Some modern authors assert that Francis suffered from a form of PTSD that sent him into a dark night of questioning his very identity. He was 22 years old.

After a period of intense soul searching, he attempted to recapture his sense of who he was by enlisting in another military campaign heading to the South of Italy. He got only as far as Spoleto, a town just a few miles away from Assisi.  Here he had a deep realization that the world in which he was living was topsy-turvy.  Most people who called themselves Christian had little use for the teachings of Jesus that encouraged peace and poverty of spirit.  Love of enemies and living a simple life with trust in the Divine seemed to be values honored in words but mocked in daily life.

Thus he turned his back on his upper middle class life, and decided that one was either a Christian or not.  Cherry picking the Gospels seemed a betrayal that was rampant in the 13th century–from the top down.  There were many movements of religious awakening in those days, such as the Cathars and the Waldensians, but for reasons I will pursue in another essay, they were ultimately condemned by the institutional church and many of their adherents were burned at the stake.  Francis himself escaped this fate although some of his most faithful followers were executed after his death.  But that is another story.

For now, let us simply remember that he managed to remain a faithful Catholic and went about his Father’s business of love and healing.  Much is made of his extreme asceticism and life of poverty, but this could be an exaggeration intended to idealize his sainthood by his early biographers.  He was certainly more ascetic than I would wish to be, but I think his most characteristic and charismatic feature was his unwavering love for God and human beings and nature.  Given the context of the 13th century, I think it is this Love that set him apart, and called over 5000 followers to his community in a very few years.  It is this love and peace that I see in the sculpture at San Damiano.  His journey to that beautiful place–both in Assisi and in his own heart–was not an easy one. But look again at the picture.  Is there anywhere else you would rather be?

Twenty Seven Years

J & C Temple25 years ago

Today, the Feast of Stephen, is also our wedding anniversary.  Old friends of Carolyn happened to be my flight students at Montair Flight Service in Vermont, and they told her that she just HAD to meet their flight instructor.  “Right,” she said, “I remember the other guys you set me up with.”  We had both been alone for many years, and had pretty much given up on relationships.  We had built happy, busy and satisfying lives for ourselves–she in Boston, me in Vermont–as single people.    But that day in January of 1987  when she accompanied her friends to Burlington for a flight lesson, we both felt something akin to an electric shock when we saw each other.   That incredible moment gave the truth to this marvelous poem of Rumi:

“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”

And that moment has not only lasted, but expanded into undreamed of dimensions. Each morning my mind fills with wonder and my heart with joy as my eyes rest on the wondrous being with whom I share my life.

twenty seven years

blessings beyond imagining

each day a new joy 

It’s not hard to be dazzled

Rose window

“The multiplicity of forms!” writes Mary Oliver in her newest book of poetry.  “It must be a great disappointment to God if we are not dazzled at least ten times a day.”  That got me to thinking:

When I wake each morning to my wife’s radiant smile,

It’s not hard to be dazzled.

When I am with my sons, who know my human failings more than anyone, and see the unconditional love in their eyes,

It’s not hard to be dazzled.

When I hear my teenage Granddaughters ask me a question that stops my Professor’s mind in its tracks,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When the ancient Maple Tree down the road fills its yellow autumn leaves with light,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When a hummingbird rests on my finger as it feeds,

It’s not hard to be dazzled.

When a friend shares her vulnerable heart,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When a classroom full of students ignites in flaming wonder at a new idea,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

Reading Mary Oliver, or Rumi, or Walt Whitman, or Dylan Thomas, or Basho, or Issa,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

Listening to Mozart, or Beethoven, or Mahler, or Clifford Brown, or Bill Evans,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When I stand before Monet, or El Greco, or Kandinsky, or Sarolla, or Winslow,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

Simply being, simply breathing, and really really really paying attention,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

 

What dazzles you?

 

 

Jesus Wept—For a Friend

Jesus wept.  There are many erudite and inspiring interpretations of this, the shortest verse in the St. James Bible (John, 11:35).  While giving due respect to exegetical scholars, I find it helpful to reflect on the human side of Rabbi Jesus.  As I noted in my essay Jesus and the Fig Tree , the episodes that display Jesus in a fit of pique (the fig tree), or anger (the money changers), or frustration (often with his disciples), or grief (for Lazarus or Jerusalem), give me comforting reassurance that even the most highly evolved among us share our human vulnerabilities.  I find it instructive to take these stories at face value, and use them as a springboard for thinking about the wonders and the mysteries of ordinary life.  One of the greatest of these wonders is friendship.

I find it very beautiful that Jesus would weep at the death of a friend.  Ralph Waldo Emerson observed,  “A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.”  C.S. Lewis, however, offers a cautionary note:  “to the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”   My experience leads me to shy away from this last sentence.   I can honestly say that my  life’s journey would have have been very different without loving friends to weep with me through the darkness, to laugh with me through crepuscular awakenings, and to dance with me through the light.

Perhaps, however, Lewis is partly correct.  During the busiest times of our lives, it seems we only have room for “socializing,” and not for deep friendships.  Dinner parties or watching football with some buddies and some beers temper the stresses of modern life, but the respect, comfort, and trust that blossom into the love of friendship calls for discovery and creation, care and nurture.  These friends are as rare as they are precious.  They are bound to us with hoops of steel,  and being with them is an essential part of life.

Still, it seems to me that our friendships, our loves, surround us in concentric circles.  My wife and children and grandchildren live in the innermost circle, surrounded by the sisterhood and brotherhood of intimate friends.  The next circle is enriched by those souls that we recognize and love for a lifetime.  So many men and women from my past, so many students,  have taken up permanent residence in a warm place in my heart. I was recently with a friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years.  As our eyes met, my heart melted into joyful, trusting love.   I could see the same was happening with him.  It was a wonder not only to love each other, but to be aware of that love and to rest in its embrace. There are so many people, hundreds perhaps, with whom I share this love in varying degrees. Further still from the center, we can find human solidarity with a waitress or a service person or a person we pass on the street.   Martin Buber said that if we listen, we can even hear the call of I/Thou in the voice of a railway conductor.

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A MATTER OF LOVE AND DEATH

Death tears the fabric of our lives. The wrenching loss of beloved, vital people seems an impossible affront. I know St. Paul said that faith would rob death of its sting, but that just doesn’t feel right. The loss of a beloved presence in our lives leaves an emptiness that will never fill–nor should it. It seems to me that grief is the sword in the heart of love. It is love’s burden, and love’s gift. For while faith might not rob death of its sting, the death of a beloved person can indeed bring many gifts. If we allow it, the finitude of life can come crashing into our awareness and bring with it a lasting perspective. Our broken hearts can break open to a love that cracks the shell of ego, so that grief is no longer the pain of self-centered victimization (Why did this loss happen to Me?), but a deep recognition of the interplay of life’s precious beauty and heartfelt sadness. I find consolation in the Hindu trinity of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. It is a powerful mythic rendering of the transience and the mystery of life.

These reflections are not purely theoretical. Our 30 year old daughter died a few years ago, and it was then that the above perspectives began to grow.

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The Gift of Listening

rca

In my recent post “Shoddy Virtues,” I quoted John Steinbeck to the effect that the act of giving can often be an ego-inflating sham, while gracious receiving requires wisdom and humility. In that post I did celebrate the possibility of giving with love and lamented selfish receiving, but Steinbeck’s observation that those qualities are often reversed seems spot on.

There is one act of receiving, however, that strikes me as almost always so wise and humble that it itself becomes a gift. I am of course referring to the receptive gift of listening.
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Jazz is love made manifest

I believe that all art is Love made manifest, but since the jazz piano has been one of my best friends throughout my life, I will use this genre to reflect on the lessons that the fine arts offer to the art of living.

Let me start with a couple of stories:

Many years ago, I was playing the 5-7 slot at a good hotel in Burlington, Vermont. After a couple of months, the management hired another piano player to play the later hours, and since I did not know him, I stayed behind to hear what he could do. His technique was amazing! A friend leaned over to me and said “Cat’s got chops!” I nearly ran out of the building in a panic, thinking my career was over. But I heard a glimmer of something off. For all his talent and hard work over the years, it was clear that HE was the point of his playing. He knew he was good, and he not only wanted, but needed, everyone to know it. This need of his ego, however, leached the soul from his music. I decided I could continue playing.
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A second story: I had the privilege of working for many years with a magnificent sax player named Larry McCrorey. We had played nightclubs, hotels, and weddings for over twenty years, and we were very close. For all this time, however, we had never played a concert–until one fateful night in the Spring of 1983. We strolled onto the stage with our sidemen with hardly a thought and proceeded to play tunes with which we were very familiar. We quickly knew, however, that something was very wrong. We never missed a beat nor did either of us play a wrong note. We played every song correctly–but none of it was very Good. Larry and I were both lost and sick at heart, wondering what had happened, and the more we tried to fix it the worse it got. The audience seemed to enjoy the performance, but we both knew it had been flat, heartless, without soul. And we had no idea why.
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Personal Rituals: Lectio Divina

There are certainly serendipitous turnings on the road to Wisdom. The phone rings, a stranger is kind, you are really seen by someone at a party, or exactly the right book falls off a shelf into your hands. These are moments of grace, telling us we are not alone. The road to wisdom, however, also calls for intentional practices, called Sadhana in Eastern traditions. These are practices that are aimed at becoming more self-aware and less self-conscious, and at deepening the beliefs that create a more ample and generous world in which to live. In subsequent essays, I will be writing about practices from various traditions, but for today I would like to share one of the rituals that enriches the lives of Carolyn and me. I realize that the rituals we weave into the fabric of our lives are ultimately highly personal, but it is also helpful, I think, to glean ideas from glimpses into each other’s lives.
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Living the Love of Wisdom # 2: Tao 38

In the previous post, I reflected on the nature of Wisdom as a classical virtue, relying mostly on the thought of Aristotle. Gaining an understanding of wisdom as a virtue, however, is only a small part of the art of living the love of wisdom. Let us turn to Eastern Wisdom today, and allow Lao Tzu to guide us on the path of the art of living. Verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching has been an inspiration for me for many years. Here is the translation by Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng:
yinyang
A truly good man is not aware of his goodness,
And is therefore good.
A foolish man tries to be good,
And is therefore not good.
A truly good man does nothing,
Yet leaves nothing undone.
A foolish man is always doing,
Yet much remains to be done. When a truly kind man does something, he leaves nothing undone.
When a just man does something, he leaves a great deal to be done.
When a disciplinarian does something and no one responds,
He rolls up his sleeves in an attempt to enforce order.

Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness (te, virtue).
When goodness is lost, there is kindness (jen, benevolence).
When kindness is lost, there is justice (ren, righteousness).
When justice is lost, there is ritual (li, propriety).

Therefore the truly great man dwells on what is real
and not what is on the surface.
On the fruit and not the flower.
Therefore accept one and reject the other.

The implications of this verse could easily fill several books, but I will do my best to restrain myself. I have already considered superior vs. inferior virtue in the blog post “Shoddy Virtues,” and written two essays on ritual (the Young Monk and A Sip of Tea).

For today, let us consider the evolution of consciousness outlined in another translation of verse 38:
“Hence when the way [Tao] was lost there was virtue [Te]; when virtue was lost there was benevolence [Jen]; when benevolence was lost there was rectitude [righteousness, Ren]; when rectitude was lost there were the rites [ritual, li ]. And, it is implied, when ritual fails, the disciplinarian uses force and fear.

The Way to Wisdom
We might see the unfolding of the art of living the love of wisdom as a reversal of the process in Tao 38: We often begin learning through fear, then develop rote behaviors (li), moving to “right” principles (ren), and perhaps on to benevolent, or at least beneficent, behavior (jen), finally becoming virtuous (te) by assimilating accumulated beliefs and values, actions and attitudes, into ourselves as a second nature (Aristotle). As Ken Wilber points out, each stage is both transcended and included in this process (including fear, although I think ultimately it would evaporate as a needless appendage). While becoming virtuous and acting from one’s virtue is the pinnacle of development for Aristotle, it is only the penultimate stage of development in the thought of Lao Tzu. For him, all the stages of the development of consciousness–ritual, principles, benevolence, and virtue–are dry and sterile without being vivified with the energy of Tao. Just as with Virtue, every stage can be “higher” or “lower.” Perhaps a tentative meaning of Tao and of this entire process will become more clear if I use my favorite musical analogy.

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Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God

The Labyrinth of Love

I remember my friend Birger sitting across from me on the Shinkansen. We had spent a glorious day at the Grand Shrine of the Sun Goddess at Ise. The rural countryside of Japan unfolded like a scroll painting in the window of our coach. Birger cradled a huge bottle of Kirin Beer in his even huger fist, looked at me, and grinned his grin. “John,” he said, “it doesn’t get much better than this.” And we drank to that.

For some reason, my friend’s causal remark sparked the wonder in me. “Is this as good as it gets?” I thought. And then “How good does it get?” And finally, “How good do I expect it to get?” I immediately thought of John Stuart Mill’s observation that the foundation of happiness lies in “not expecting more from life than it is capable of bestowing.” This foundation is nowhere breached more often than in the case of love. Thomas Moore points out that “many of the problems people bring to therapy involve the high expectations and the rock-bottom experience of love. … Our love of love and our high expectations that it will somehow make life complete seem to be an integral part of the experience. Love seems to promise that life’s gaping wounds will close up and heal.” Incalculable suffering and its attendant closing of the heart follow from the jarring disharmony between love as dreamed and love as lived, love as thought about and love as experienced. As Moore says, “A sentimental philosophy of love, embracing only the romantic and the positive, fails at the first sign of shadow. … Such a partial view also presents impossible ideals and expectations. If love can’t match these ideals, it is destroyed for being inadequate.”

In this essay, in order to temper love’s sentimentality, I will follow the inspiration of Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie in the wonderful book, Their Eye Were Watching God. (The page numbers are from the 1978 edition from the University of Illinois Press). I will do my best to follow Janie’s journey in some detail without at the same time being a spoiler for those who have not read the book. Let us, then, watch how one woman walks the long, arduous, sometimes traumatic, and ultimately fulfilling path of love.

Janie’s first experience of love is physically erotic, and the poetic image of that shatteringly beautiful experience stays with her throughout her life. It was the springtime awakening of Nature resonating in her own soul and body:

“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.” (24)

It is telling, I think, that Janie counts this time of erotic awakening as the beginning of her conscious life. She longs to be a tree visited by “kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world,” (25) and for the rest of her life she views herself as a blossom opening and closing in response to her own dreams and to the strange workings of the world. This image of the pear tree plays out as a litmus of love throughout the drama of her three marriages. Janie’s journey from her initial awakening to her opening as a blossom herself to her ultimate realization of the transcendental beauty of love is paradoxical in that the deeper she goes into the unexpected shadows of life, the brighter becomes her experience of herself and of love. Through all her difficulties, Janie refuses to settle for a mediocre status quo, and she courageously transforms ignorance into understanding, the need for safety into wild abandon, and a life pinched by fear into one of joyful liberation. These transformations, however, came slowly, tentatively, and with perseverance through unbelievable hardship.

Janie’s first husband, Logan Killicks, is a “good man” (28) who, she says “ain’t even talked ‘bout hittin’ me. He says he never mean to lay de weight uh his hand on me in malice. He chops all de wood he thinks Ah wants and den he totes it inside de kitchen for me. Keeps both water buckets full.” (40) Logan is one of those people who uses goodness, or righteousness, as a defensive shield against the uncertainties of life. He cries, “Ah’m too honest and hard-workin’ for anybody in yo’ family, dat’s de reason you don’t want me!” (53) Janie finds his safety and rectitude just plain dull. Even the seat of his wagon was “a lonesome place like a stump in the middle of the woods where nobody had ever been. The house was absent of flavor too.” (39)

Janie knew at the outset that she did not love Logan, but her Granny, born in slavery, was consumed by fear for her granddaughter. “De thought uh you bein’ kicked around from pillar tuh post is uh hurtin’ thing,” she said. “every tear you drop squeezes uh cup of blood outa my heart.” (31) Love, Granny says, is a trap: “Dat’s de very prong all us black women gits hung on. Dis love! Dat’s just what’s got us uh pullin and uh haulin’ and sweatin’ and doin’ from can’t see in the mornin’ till can’t see at night.” (41)

But for the strong among us, there are no wasted lessons: “She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.” (44) Finally she ran off with Mayor Joe Starks, a larger-than- life politician. Joe made “a voice out of a man,” (134) and after he had fabricated an image of himself that was bigger than life, he poured all of his energy into its maintenance, becoming in effect the prisoner of his own image. A friend observes that Joe’s “got a throne in the seat of his pants. … He’s uh man dat changes everything, but nothin’ don’t change him.” (79) When Janie levels the same charge at Joe in her powerful speech at his death bed, she is aware of the effect this has had on her: “You wasn’t satisfied wid me de way Ah was. Naw! Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded our tuh make room for yours in me.” (133) I wonder how many modern women could make the same accusation. At any rate, Janie lived and suffered through years of an ego-bound denial of life until her liberation by Joe’s death.

After some time alone, Janie was swept off her feet one day by a free spirit of a man named Tea Cake, and with him she learned the power and the vitality that come from the death of conventionalism. “So in the beginnin’,” she says, “new thoughts had tuh be thought and new words said. … He done taught me de maiden language all over.” (173) During the first blush of their relationship, Janie’s favorite name for Tea Cake was “crazy thing.’

Thus forty years of struggle and disillusionment, insight and growth had brought her to the point of loving—and being loved by—-a Crazy Thing. To Janie, Tea Cake Was Love itself: “He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.” (161) His utter spontaneity both dazzled her and kindled her spirit. She “beams out with light” (153) as she and Tea Cake “went rollicking with springtime across the world.” (137) They went fishing at midnight, and “it was so crazy digging worms by lamp light…that she felt like a child breaking rules.” (155) And when Tea Cake tells her they are going down on the muck to work, he says they are “goin’ tuh do somethin’ crazy”: they are going to a place where “folks don’t do nothin’…but make money and fun and foolishness.” (192)

This foolishness that Janie has learned is the wisdom of living with risk and uncertainty. When her friend Phoebe cautions her that in marrying Tea Cake she is “takin’ uh awful chance.” Janie responds: “No mo’ than Ah took befo’ and no mo’ than anybody else takes when dey gits married. It always changes folks, and sometimes it brings out dirt and meanness dat even de person didn’t know they had in ‘em theyselves. You know dat. Maybe Tea Cake might turn out lak dat. Maybe not. Anyhow, Ah’m ready and will’un tuh try ‘im.” (171)

Janie further explains that life and “love ain’t like a grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak the sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.” (284)

Now the shore that love meets is not only different from relationship to relationship, but from day to day and hour to hour. Life shifts and changes, and people with it. And so the sea of love had its stormy and fearful moods, giving rise to doubt and jealousy: “In the cool of the afternoon the fiend from hell specially sent to lovers arrived at Janie’s ear. Doubt. All the fears that circumstance could provide and the heart feel, attacked her on every side.” (163) And so “Janie learned what it felt like to be jealous…She began to be snappish a little. A little seed of fear growing into a tree.” (203) These seeds grew until Tea Cake, terrified by the presence of a potential rival, beat Janie. It was “no brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss.” (218) This episode is one of the two most disturbing scenes in the book. The other, of course, is the shocking and tragic death of Tea Cake. (I will pass over the manner of his demise in deference to those who have yet to read the book).

For all its poetry, Hurston’s vision of love is radically unsentimental. She sees clearly that a heart needs grit in order to work out its dreams of love. Her deeper insight is that even after true love is achieved, the demons of doubt and distrust and fear continue to challenge and nurture growth. Seen in this light, these demons are part of love’s nature. They constitute its richness and vitality, for Love is like all living things: when it ceases to unfold, it dies. The beating was a terrible moment for them both but when it had passed they found themselves caring about each other, and healing each other’s pain. Those of us who have banned physical violence from our lives will still have challenging moments in our relationships. As long, however, as nothing–truly nothing— matters more than love itself, the relationship itself, every challenge will be a step toward deeper commitment.

Thus, Janie found love with Tea Cake and peace within herself, but only after years of trial and error and heartache. As she grew in wisdom and love, she sank more deeply into herself and therefore more deeply into the fabric of the world. She learned that the greatest insights into the nature of love need to be fired in the forge of life’s beauty and life’s sadness. Tea Cake—crazy, human, spontaneous Tea Cake—was a glance from God. It seems to me, that if we could all remember that our loved ones are indeed a glance from God, then that is as good as it gets.