Subscribe now to receive new weekly essays by email!
Joseph - The names of those who have gone before us evoke a variety of responses.
Some men go by the name of Joseph, others Joe; some women use Joanne or Josephine, others Jo. The names that we are given at birth are very often negotiated, modified and even changed quite a bit within a broad family context that includes close friends. Our names convey and take on particular meaning to people, according to how they know us. For all the Josephs in the world, there is only one husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. And whether or not our names are the same as many or few persons among those who know us, each of us is recognized as a unique individual. Our names do not define us, but the particular manner in which we relate with others provides meaning for our name.
Our names are important to us. Most of us prefer to be called by our name rather than by the wholly non-specific “you,” or according to some generic impersonal classification that might apply. We want to be known for who we are, not solely for what we do; there is much more to us than what others can observe. Our concern is not about mere words, but spirit: we are not things, but persons whose very existence is meaningful in time and also beyond time.
When we use names for people, we choose according to our relationships, taking into account other’s preferences as well as our own perspectives. In personal encounters, our decisions are immediate, with only a moment for deciding upon a name to use. When we write, or before we initiate contact, we have more time to consider our use of names. The process for choosing how we address others is spiritual, and cannot be assigned to a computer even though many situations have very definite protocols for using titles and formal identification for certain persons according to their positions in Society.
The names of those who have gone before us evoke a variety of responses: family members and friends, famous people and Saints as well as those who are notorious for their mistreatment of others. Some of them, according to our beliefs about “all being present to God” are names that we use not only when talking about them but when addressing them. Since we can communicate with God directly, we can also address those who are literally present to God. And just as we sometimes make changes in the names we use for particular persons as our relationship with them matures, we can do the same with those who have moved from our environment in time to that of life in God’s timeless eternity. Our respect, admiration and love for people does not stop with their death, but often increases as we continue to use their names, images or sense of spirit-connection.
Referring to those who gone before us by their names is a means for us to relate with them as they are in themselves and not solely as associates of ours. If we do not use their names in an appropriate manner, we cannot hurt their feelings, either of the Saints or of any of those whom we might call upon in friendship. But our relationships will be more truly satisfying when we address those we know by name.
Thank you Joseph, for taking care of that Child.
Following a Star: Our True Story
Most of us have had experiences of following a star, when we consciously chose to continue in a direction that made sense to us, though not necessarily to others who knew us. We had an internal conviction that we were going somewhere that was right for us, but we had no proof to offer if anyone, even we, wondered why we continued on our chosen path. We are much more wonderfully made than the robots that can put cars together or vacuum floors. And our orientation is much broader, and with many more possibilities for growth and change than artificial intelligence can approximate. Following a star is a spiritual enterprise that exemplifies the best attributes of being a human.
We can train our bodies through repetition to do simple things like throwing a ball, and we can manage a large number of complex habitual movements such as getting into and out of a car seat or washing dishes. We act in these ways without hardly a thought. But more wondrously, if we reflect, we have the capacity to perceive a possible future way of living or acting, and keep that goal as an ongoing motivation which we follow within and through all the other normal aspects of day-to-day living.
We follow stars more often than we think, because the process is not predominantly one of thought, any more than spirituality can be equated with thoughts about allegedly spiritual topics. When we freely give ourselves to a worthy aspiration, we navigate, steer or move purposely more like a soaring bird catching updrafts or a surfer riding a wave than someone working an equation to a logical conclusion. Following stars is not illogical, but relies on the logic of love rather than control, and is for many of us our main mode of adapting, changing and living an engaged and fulfilling life.
Though we could think that following a star is a completely individualistic movement, all exercise of our spiritual nature is in some ways communal. Unlike machines, including computers that are programmed to make many adaptations “on their own,” we not only take in specific data from our all the sources accessible to us, but we can accept inspirations and impulses that are best described as of spirit rather than matter. None of the directions we take in life begin and end solely with us. We are always in relationship to others, more than the storied threesome who went to Bethlehem following a star. Whatever route we take according to the non-coercive but sometimes insistent suggestions we receive, always brings us closer to others, even when the bonds are neither visible nor material.
The source of our inspirations is not just spiritual, but Spirit: Love. We are loved, and our responses lead us to deeper personal fulfilment as individuals and as members of the community of loved-into-being humans. Our experiences of responding to the interior invitations of following a star are too real and too significant to originate in any other way than creative Love.
Following a star: our true story.
Recipe - The movements in our hearts are reliable and trustworthy guides if we attend to them.
Some people follow a recipe or a set of written instructions exactly, while others work according to their own ideas of how something is to be done. The first way, of being precise, would seem to offer the most predictable and consistent results, but, depending upon the level of experience of those who operate more freely of detailed plans, the somewhat creative outcomes they achieve are often quite satisfying. The two manners of completing very specific tasks are different, but not opposed, though advocates of one way or the other are often convinced that their mode of working is best.
Self-help books and articles abound with free advice for success in life, but most of us have learned from experience that for building relationships, and even for praying, there is no exact formula for interactions with others. What we do in any relationship, however minimal, is not at all like making a pie or setting up a new handheld device. We have preferences in our manner of relating with people just as we do with recipes and instructions, but the tools and materials necessary for dealing in a positive manner with other persons are spiritual, not material.
Whether we tend to follow instructions exactly or not, and however formal or informal we might be and however introverted or extroverted we are in relating with others, the most reliable and important aspect of what we actually say and do is spiritual. Some of us acknowledge inspirations as providing guidance, others would say that they are caring persons, and still others that love is ultimately the source of their orientation. But reflecting on our experience of relationships we can easily recognize how much our hearts, not just our minds, are involved. We do not follow a recipe in even the briefest of interactions; our whole being is involved.
However we go about making use of instructions, we never relinquish our decision-making responsibilities. Whether we tend to be more creative or less so, we always bear a responsibility to act as humans, not machines. That is why we do not have a recipe for making decisions. The movements that take place in our hearts and enter our minds as “this is the right thing to do, the right way to act,” guide us as surely as might the most excellent spiritual advisor. Even our typical manner of processing directives can certainly be a proper subject of discerning better from less good.
We have a gracious truth moving in and through us in support of making decisions that complement rather than detract from our purpose in life. The movements in our hearts are reliable and trustworthy guides if we attend to them. The decisions we make are always uniquely our own, but just as we cannot live without air to breathe, our decision-making, which defines who we are, depends upon the breath of those thoughts that are arise from the love in our hearts, enabling us to choose a life of meaning rather than undirected activity.
Family - Our truly supportive relationships are sometimes not found where we would expect.
For all of the interest that many people have in personal rights and in having the freedom to fashion their own manner of proceeding, no one has found a better way to live than in a family setting. There are all kinds of familial relationships that are both possible and supportive. Human nature definitely favors some form of family as an ongoing formative experience through all of life.
We have no need for definitions of “family” to know that some of us have very positive and life-enhancing connections with relatives. Others have little or no attachment to birth-parents or siblings, but derive much that gives their lives meaning and satisfaction from a variety of ongoing relationships with persons who share values, perspectives and most importantly, mutual respect and care. From birth to death, we thrive when we have experiences that are derived from love, however we share in it.
By reflecting a bit upon our experiences having to do with those whose lives give ours meaning and purpose, we can celebrate an essential and beautiful though ordinary truth that, like breathing, is not considered newsworthy. If we appreciate that “love is where you find it,” we have the insight that allows us to see the value, importance and source of joy that come to us through some of our communal relationships. When we consciously acknowledge a precious aspect of life, we continue to develop rather than take it for granted. If we know how to tell a good story that others enjoy, we become better story-tellers over time; we do not suddenly switch to sharing quotations of wise sayings. If we find in our experience how valuable family kinds of interconnections are to us, we will more willingly participate, and give of ourselves to these relationships.
We are primarily receivers when we are young; we more readily give to others as we find how satisfying it is to be a participant in their growth and development as human persons. Parents and teachers would seem to be those who most exemplify positive interactions with others. But if we look into our own personal history with the idea that the word “family” is not limited exclusively to birth-relations, we will readily acknowledge that we have a variety of shared bonds with people who are quite different from us. We have had sincere deep experiences with people whose national origin, first language, faith, and political views are not the same as ours. Yet, we have something in common that binds us closely, which can only arise from love: care, respect and desiring whatever is good for the other. Our truly supportive relationships are sometimes not found where we would expect, assume, or even want “family” to exist, but when we experience this kind of love, we can treasure it, foster it and give ourselves to it freely and with gratitude.
One of the intuitive reasons why Christians have no quarrel with God being three persons is because Love requires relationship: giving and receiving love that pours out into all of creation, including us, the family of God.
Retreat - Retreating for the sake of advancing.
The word “retreat” has several meanings, some of them closely related, others not recognizably so. Rather than trying to accurately define the different kinds of communal events that can go by the name of retreat, we can become usefully active by doing some personal retreating. And in so doing, we will also have positive effects upon those around us.
All of our decisions affect others for good or otherwise, because we encounter them as we are: in a generally positive frame of mind or the opposite; with an orientation towards whatever might be better, or of caring nothing about the consequences of our choices. We are never exactly the same today as we were yesterday, and whether we are more a contributor to life than merely a user depends upon how we observe and act in accord with our interior movements.
For some, any kind of introspection seems like a waste of time and energy, as a failure to get anything done. For others, the only way to know which direction to take or to have any chance of being fully human and effective in what we say and do depends upon giving conscious attention, however momentary, to our thoughts and their related feelings. Though retreating of this latter sort might seem to be not doing anything, it is as essential as selecting the correct phone number before calling, or choosing the right pass code before pressing Enter.
To retreat in the sense of backing away from mental or physical activity for the sake of determining better how to proceed is far different from the cliché of “two steps forward and one step back.” We do not in the least way move backwards when we take into consideration not just our occupation of the moment, but the present effects upon our sense for what is better or less good, and of consonance with our values or in contradiction to them. Even the extremely well-aimed rockets that take satellites into space must make occasional small but vital corrections to their trajectories. And we, who sometimes get moving on a project before we hardly know which way to go, surely can benefit from taking whatever pause is necessary for ensuring that our head and our heart are in agreement. This kind of retreating is very forward-looking and much more effective than staying in motion without clear direction to whatever we are doing.
Some organized retreats are primarily business meetings, others are intentionally inner-directed and spiritual. Whenever we privately retreat for the sake of making decisions based on our desire to think, speak and act in in a manner that seems right and is accompanied by feelings of peace, we are most certainly engaged in spiritual activity that encourages us to move forward. Likewise, when we notice that something appears to be good, but we also sense dissonance, this spiritual activity also enables us to make a well-founded decision: not to proceed. Retreating so that we can decide issues based on both external information as well as internal evidence is the most efficient way of making real progress.
Retreating for the sake of advancing is spiritually wise and effective.
Harps - Even in this life, love is possible anywhere at any time.
Angels playing harps on white fluffy clouds might make for pleasing art or for comic strip caricatures. But even for the most avid music lover, spending eternity in such a genteel occupation is not that attractive. Harp-playing might have viewed as a symbol for peace in ages past more than it is now. But when it comes to eternal rest, or heaven, or the after-life or existence beyond time, the real and unlimited possibilities of whatever might follow after this life can be found if we reflect on present experiences, using our imagination.
We do not have available to us, nor do we really need, reports and interviews from those who are presently engaged in the kind of doings that we have reason to expect of the next life. If we give some thought to the deepest core of happiness in this life, we can verify the basic reality that supports our hopeful expectations for the next life.
The most promising aspect of life now that seems appropriate afterwards, is love. Our need to love and to be loved is never fully satisfied in this life even for the saints among us. The movement is so defining of humankind, and has such power, that we will do everything we can on behalf of those we love, partially because we have an innate sense that love is transcendent and does not really come to an end. Love, even as we experience it, does not pass away, though individual acts indeed come to a conclusion. Rather than playing harps or resting peacefully, unlimited love is an active, truly fitting after-life life-style that will be completely satisfying in every way.
We know that our love even now is not limited to family members and closest friends. Teaching, guiding, assisting, helping and acting kindly toward others as we do in a myriad of ways, give us quite reasonable hope that this kind of love will continue in an environment where time and energy are no longer quantifiable and limited, but infinite and eternal. Even in this life love is possible anywhere at any time. But we have so many limiting factors, and so much experience of the very opposite of love in this world, that if we do not reflect thoughtfully, we could miss the primacy of love in our lives, and not be able to foresee a life where only love is possible. Death is the end of all but love. Death has no conceivable place in life after death where love is all.
Even if much of what we think about and put ourselves into with so much energy might not seem connected in any way with love, we can easily affirm that we are people of action. Death is the state of complete inaction. Whatever image we might hold for life beyond death, we can know with certainty that life is about action, not a state of passivity. Endless time will provide the appropriate environment of unlimited capacity for every kind of occupation of which we will be capable. There will be no lack of action, and all will be unequivocally filled with, and expressive of, love.
After all, those who play harps most likely do so with love as well as skill.
Victim - We are essentially free to interact with reality as we choose.
The word “victim” is not a pleasant-sounding word and usually does not bring anything positive to mind. Freedom to choose is so very dear to us that the idea of being victimized by persons or circumstances is quite repugnant. Huge numbers of people in the world have very little control over the major natural and political events that make their lives extraordinarily difficult, and yet they do not define themselves as victims, and they do not see themselves as persons who have no options whatever. The human spirit does not identify with being victim.
For some, categorizing themselves as victims might seem to be a means for avoiding responsibility or for gaining sympathy. But if we use the term too lightly as part of our internal dialog we put ourselves into a helpless frame of mind. And if we describe our situation to others as being that of a victim, we inhibit the honest communication with them that would result in practical support. People around us know when we are suffering, but they also know that in most situations we have possibilities for modifying our constrained circumstances, and that we can choose to see ourselves as active and engaged, dealing with the realities of life rather than succumbing to them.
We sometimes smile when we hear people blaming their present difficulties on persons or circumstances, because we know from experience that, other than expressing some negative feelings, nothing changes by claiming that problems are not really ours if we say that someone or something else is responsible for them. Only when we decide how we will respond to any particular event, condition or set of circumstances will we truly take care of ourselves and obtain internal balance. We can be temporarily victimized, if that is the best description for being affected by circumstances over which we have no control, but it does no good for us or for anyone else if we choose to label ourselves as victims.
However we might name the source of our insistence on facing as best we can whatever befalls us, our consistent experience of relating with life’s more painful incidents is that of coming to a personally satisfying integrity, not that of ongoing frustration and anger. Suffering anything from a minor physical injury to a major personal loss does not have power over our capacity to choose how we will relate to illness, injustice or any other problem that can occur.
Some occurrences affect our emotions so strongly that our freedom to choose how best to respond is temporarily diminished. But our spiritual nature succeeds in passing through such stages of being victimized when we look beyond our focus on self to help that is outside us. We rely on friends, mentors, professionals of various kinds, but also and anywhere and at any time, on God, Spirit, Love, and any named or unnamed source of encouragement that comes from beyond us even as it touches us within. We are not alone, but are in solidarity with all those who bear an internal insistence that we are never, of ourselves, wholly victims.
No matter how people may describe us when we suffer, we are essentially free to interact with reality as we choose.