Thursday, June 13, 2013

Finding Your Precious Bowl

There is a story about a young Buddhist monk and an old Buddhist monk who were walking along the countryside, carrying their begging bowls. They came to a stream and began to cross it, stirring up the sediment on the bottom as they made their way across. In the middle of the stream, with the water now up to their waist, the young monk suddenly stumbled, losing the grip on his begging bowl, which promptly sank and disappeared into the murky current. He lurched to save it, but all he came back with was dirty water and empty hands. The old monk quickly came over, and together they probed the bottom with their feet, trying find that begging bowl. After a fruitless ten minutes of searching, shuffling along a whole stretch of the stream, the young monk grew frustrated. “What will I do now? That bowl was my most precious possession? What a stupid thing to lose it. I’ll never find it again!”
    The old monk calmly looked at him and said, “Settle down. Don’t get all excited. The bowl is still there. You just can’t see it right now. But I have a suggestion for how you can find it. Do you see that large tree on the other side of the stream?”
    The young monk said, “You mean that really big one by the edge? Yes, I see it.”
    “I want you to go over to that tree,” said the old monk, “sit down on the ground beneath it, close your eyes, and meditate quietly for 30 minutes.”
    “What good will that do?” said the young monk. “My begging bowl is somewhere in this stream, not under that tree.”
    “Just do as I say,” replied the old monk. “I will go ahead of you, and you can catch up with me later on. Just go sit beneath that tree and meditate. You will find that all things will become clear.”
    The young monk did as the old monk had told him. He walked out of the stream, sat down beneath the tree, and meditated for a full 30 minutes. The old man walked off and disappeared over the hill. After 30 minutes, indeed the young monk had calmed down. His spirit had settled, and his mind had begun to clear. The frustration was gone, and now he was just a little sad about losing his bowl.
     But when he opened his eyes, he found out that the stream had cleared up as well. All the sediment that they had stirred up had settled down to the bottom, and now the water was crystal clear, with the sun dancing on the surface of the rippling current. He was able to see to the bottom of the stream in all directions, and straightaway he saw where his begging bowl had landed, gleaming in the reflected sunlight.
     He stood up, walking into the stream, reached down, and picked up the bowl. Then he rushed to catch up with the wise old monk who had known how to find clarity. His most precious possession was all the more precious for having been found.

The end of a school term and the beginning of a vacation is a time of excitement and thoughts of precious things yet to be. Plans and packing lead to unanticipated experiences, probing ventures or adventures, and the occasional stumble. Perhaps there will even be a time when it appears that a precious thing was dropped or lost – through the unkind word, the forgotten gesture, the genuine mistake. In the turbulence of the situation, the effect may easily become greater than the cause, and suddenly a small thing has become a large one, the mouse has transmogrified into a monster. For reasons quite unclear, some precious object (friendship, love, forgiveness, kindness, tolerance, peace, etc.) appears to be irretrievably lost.

This is the time to allow the point of a vacation or break to come forward. Find a quite place. Be still. Let things settle, both inside and outside. At the appropriate time, open your eyes and observe the clarity of genuine reality, unfettered by swirling sediment, as clear as a sparkling stream. Find where that precious thing has landed. Heave a sigh of relief, and then walk over – please do walk over – and pick it up from below the surface. Then be on your way with new appreciation and a firmer grip on the thing that once was lost and now is found.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Fascination & Fear - The Crucifix

“In the crucifix you see, in the most vivid, convincing way, 
God speaking to us about his great love.”
- Cardinal Basil Hume, OSB -

The crucifix, which is a cross with the body of Jesus displayed on it, is such a strange religious image. For those who are not familiar with the mystery that it conveys, the image of a half-naked man nailed to a cross is crass and almost grossly graphic. Why not a nicer image, such as the resurrected Christ in glorified robes and a crown, against a plain cross in the background, with perhaps a sunrise as well? Some cultures even accentuate the negative effect, with the figure of Christ bleeding profusely, displaying sad eyes and a suffering expression. Why would we want to look at that? It both attracts and repels us. Why is that? What attracts us to it, and what are we afraid of?

     Both fascination and fear are bound up with the crucifix. The image fascinates because it is strangely compelling and it elicits fear because there is pain involved. Frank Sheed used to say that after all his studies and reflection and prayer, the only real thing that he could say about the mystery of redemption is that only God could do it, and it hurt. The fact that God is the main character is fascinating, but the fact that it hurt and may hurt us if we take it all seriously is cause for fear. Even when love is part of the picture, perhaps especially so, fascination and fear kick in big time.

     This combination of fascination and fear is not a new one. There was the classic description by Rudolf Otto of the “numinous” reality of divine presence and power as  “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” in the 1923 publication The Idea of the Holy (Oxford University Press). Subsequently, this description struck a chord with people, and authors as diverse as Carl Jung, CS Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Carl Sagan, and Richard Dawkins have built on Rudolf Otto’s work.  A quotation from Huxley gives a good notion of what is meant: “The literature of religious experience abounds in references to the pains and terrors overwhelming those who have come, too suddenly, face to face with some manifestation of the mysterium tremendum. In theological language, this fear is due to the incompatibility between man's egotism and the divine purity, between man's self-aggravated separateness and the infinity of God.”

     Our own human experience provides plenty of examples of the same sort of encounter. There is the range of vicarious, fascinating/fearful enjoyments, such as the tragedies of Shakespeare, the popularity of UFO’s and horror movies, or the attraction of Halloween. There are the Xtreme games (online or not) and TV shows, car-racing and encounters with bears. There is the more personal sort of version, which includes learning a new language, dating and friendship, keeping a pet or a garden, and figuring out what to do with your life. All of life’s pieces have both a fascinating and fearful aspect to them, according to one’s history, approach, perspective, and follow through.

     When a crucifix is seen as a focused, fascinating, yet fearful symbol of how life is and/or may be, then the key dimension of love jumps to the fore. Parker Palmer once wrote that we must "...allow love to inform the relations that our knowledge creates." We have to work to allow love to happen. God’s love, however, is a constant reality, available to us through the mystery of Jesus Christ, and available to others through us. In Anthony Bloom’s words, “At times one can give one's own life more easily than offer unto death the person whom one loves beyond all; and this is what God, our Father has done. But it does not make less the sacrifice of Him who is sent unto death for the salvation of one person or of the whole world. … We will never be able to experience what it meant for Him to die upon the Cross, even our own death cannot disclose to us what His death was: how can Immortality die? But what we can learn, what we can discover by communing ever more deeply, ever more perfectly through a daring, wholehearted endeavour with the life, and the teaching, and the ways of Christ - what we can learn is to love in a way that approximates more and more to that love divine, and discover in this love the quality which unites death as forgetfulness of self, ultimate and perfect, with the victory of love, Resurrection and eternal life.