Spiritual Memoir

An intimate conversation with sacred experience

Category: Spiritual Practice

Maybe

I’ve been mulling over a Zen story about a farmer whose horse ran away.  “Such bad luck!” his neighbors said.  “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

Then the horse returned, accompanied by two wild horses.  “So fortunate!” the neighbors said.  “Maybe,” said the farmer.

Later, the farmer’s son tried to ride a wild horse, was thrown off, and broke his leg.  “How awful!” the neighbors sympathized.  The farmer:  “Maybe.”

The army came through town, recruiting all the young men.  They passed by the farmer’s son because of his broken leg.  “Such good luck!” declared the neighbors.  “Maybe,” said the farmer.

What I can’t get out of my mind is the farmer’s abiding equanimity.  Where I ride waves of emotion, he keeps an even keel.  The highs of anticipation, excitement, and jubilation, he seems to say, can throw us off as much as disappointment.  Throw us off what?  Our center.  Our place of groundedness, of connection, of trust in some ultimate purpose or pattern.  Success and failure, fortune and misfortune, happiness and sadness will come and go.  Who are we to judge such things?

I find myself wanting to Christianize this very Buddhist story, not by framing bad fortune as the result of human sin or good fortune as redemption, but rather by digging down into that farmer’s “maybe.”  What resources does he draw from to maintain that equanimity?  The rare times I take what life throws me without judgment or emotional upheaval, I lean on faith:  God is behind this.  I have faith that God, and good, emerges regardless.  Sometimes—most times—the good isn’t recognizable; it’s not what I think it should be.  I have faith in a good beyond human reckoning.

The Zen farmer draws from a well quite different from mine.  But we both try to live in a story outside the obvious.  That this story even exists fills me with hope.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Too Busy to Write

Sorry, folks.  I’m too busy to write a Faith Finder article this month.  I could give you all sorts of explanations—the 8 a.m. phone call with Gwyn’s teacher, the hassle of bundling her off to school, the disaster I’m ignoring in the kitchen, my crazy to-do list—but ultimately the problem is internal.  Jangled nerves.  Thoughts popcorning willy-nilly.  Disquiet, distraction, disease.  Can’t write if you can’t focus.

So instead I’ll give you the cat:  She’s a lump of white and black fur curled on a blue blanket.  From here I can’t see a head, only the slow rise and fall of her breathing body.  Her every muscle is slack.  Her snores are soft and even.

Or perhaps I’ll give you this morning’s trees, sticky with snow, each branch white against a crystalline blue sky.  The snow details the trees.

For that matter, I could give you this awesome red easy chair.  It’s big enough to sit cross-legged in, with good but soft back support.  A window on the left, a window on the right—morning and afternoon sun.  This chair holds me but it also holds memories:  Gwyn squeezed beside me, chowing on popcorn while we read Winnie the Pooh; rare evenings reading by the fire when the house wraps silence around me; deep meditation.  There was a time, before Gwyn, when daily I’d close my eyes and sit for a half hour, only breathing.  A great filling up, a lingering release.  An expansion, a deflation.  I’d take God in, I’d send God out on my prayers.  Stillness must have settled into these cushions like dust.  I sense it even now.

Sunlight is in the potted rosemary and creeping thyme.  The house balloons with quiet.  A sip of hot tea and my belly radiates warmth.  When I get up, my day will stampede forward—a client, a dentist appointment, the kitchen disaster, four dozen emails—but for now I linger on this page.  It’s an empty palm.

I offer it to you.                                      –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Humility

It’s gone out of fashion.  Even in Christian circles we associate humility with the mothballed faith of our grandmothers.  These days we have more hip spiritual practices, like living in the present moment and doing yoga and advocating for GLBTQA rights.  Why bother groveling?  With anything that might undermine our pride?  Spirituality’s supposed to make us feel good, right?

Lately I’ve been reading some Benedictine spirituality.  Joan Chittister believes the Rule of Saint Benedict is a relevant and alive document, one that speaks directly to the contemporary consciousness.  In my skepticism, I came across this question in the Rule—“Who will dwell in your tent, O God?”—and Benedict’s answer:  “These people reverence God, and do not become elated over their good deeds; they judge it is God’s strength, not their own, that brings about the good in them.  They praise the Holy One working in them, and say with the prophet:  “Not to us, O God, not to us give the glory, but to your name alone” (Ps. 115:1).

The rare times I’ve taken humility seriously, I’ve worked to think less of myself in favor of some other.  Down with the ego!  But to Benedict, the practice of humility says nothing about us and everything about God.  God is goodness and strength working through us.  Say I’m a lamp.  I can feel awfully proud of my bright flame, and then practice humility the old way by saying, “Bad lamp!  Your flame’s not so great.”  Or I can follow Benedict’s suggestion and say, “Divinity is burning here, too.  Praise be!”

I love this, for two reasons.  God is not some abstract, absent being but goodness working through me—near, daily, tangible, real.  And by remembering this, repeatedly, I place myself in a dynamic relationship with God, that is, with the strength and goodness that makes the world go ‘round.  The glory is with God.  Isn’t that marvelous?

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Housefly, Go Home

Arnold Lobol writes a cautionary tale about a housefly who one day wakes up to see all the dirt in his house.  He diligently begins sweeping.  When he pushes the pile over the threshold, he notices the dirt on his front path, and then on the road.  He’s a good way down the road when Grasshopper comes along and inquires what he’s doing.  Poor Housefly; he’s taken on cleaning up the world.

I am that housefly.  Not that I’m a compulsive cleaner—far from it.  But I can’t look around me without seeing what needs to be done.  A moment spent admiring the (glorious) flower garden with Gwyn turns into a to-do list:  weeding, transplanting, pruning, seeding.  Cleaning the kitchen after dinner, I’m acutely aware of all I’m not cleaning:  the grease on the kettle, the spills in the refrigerator.  Clearing out my email, I berate myself for not writing to my senator to stop the Keystone pipeline or to the Security and Exchange Commission to make public the disparity between CEO- and worker-income.  I have trouble living in an incomplete world.

Oddly enough, the one arena where I feel peaceful and even passionate about incompletion is in writing.  I advocate revision; I’m the spokesperson for the slow evolution of creative work.  As Mark Doty writes, “the longer we can stay in the state of uncertainty, of unfolding possibility, the better.”  In other words, to be a fully engaged creator, we have to cultivate an enormous tolerance for incompletion.  We must see what we’ve done as well as what can be done—with equanimity, with a peaceful heart.

Most of the time, I’m halfway down the street with a broom before I realize this isn’t how I want to live.  Each day is a new creation, as is a home and work and this society we all participate in making.  My prayer is that we might learn to thrive in the midst of a messy, beautiful becoming.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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