In this season it seems many of us struggle to keep awake. The day light hours have shrunken from sixteen hours last July to now around nine. Then we moved our clocks back an hour a few weeks ago and now face darkness at 5:00. That’s five hours earlier than in late June and July! No wonder some of us struggle to keep awake and alert.
There used to be some villages in France around Flanders where the residents stayed in bed at least a couple months each winter! With their animals! They hibernated until the days got lighter and thus easier to stay awake! Cool, huh. John Adams, in the 1780’s, traveling to Paris, walked through some of these towns, amazed that all were in bed asleep.
Some people in our areas use SAD lamps to help, folks with Seasonal Affected Disorders. In some plants in Scandinavia, companies provide SAD lamps to employees to sit under for twenty minutes each day in order to feel more motivated to work. I know people in this area who use them. I think I could once in awhile too!
Yes, staying awake with long nights this time of year can be difficult. Thus the church, as in many other religious communities for thousands of years, used the time around the winter solstice to help remind people of a more debilitating form of sleep, spiritual sleep. For thousands of years various countries of the world used the season we call Advent/Christmas as a reminder and renewal time to “wake up” spiritually. Just as the increasing darkness finally turns to light in the deepest days of darkness, so we can turn on the light of understanding in our times of mental and emotional darkness. The rituals were creative and brilliant, with stories of special avatars and teachers coming in humble births at such times, followed by bright stars and seeking wise men to teach humanity that we too can awaken to the Light of Peace and deep joy. Jesus was that person, that Savior, that Avatar in our tradition.
What are to awaken to? The understanding that we are not our bodies and our brains but spirits, spirits created eternally and one with our Creator, God the Father, Mother, or Whatever. It can be a shocking awakening to some. It can seem so impossible to believe, such an escape from reality and purpose that it’s just too frightening to ponder. Better to just get drunk and party away the darkness! But such I believe is the essence of awakening.
I said this before when I spoke here, that we are is not our bodies but the inner essence of the Christ Self, a Divine Child of God, Son or Daughter. To live our lives believing we are bodies of flesh, blood, and thinking brains is darkness; to see the light is to believe we are Spirits, free and eternal. It is what being born again truly means.
When we awaken to this truth, we understand the deeper meaning of “living in this world but not of it.” It is to awaken to a complete different identity to who we are; no longer prisoners of our bodies but free and eternal spirits. We live within our bodies, observing however that we are not “of them.”
Have you ever been lost in this life, maybe lost in traffic or perhaps in woods? I got lost twice as a young man in woods, and both times were at night. I felt terrified at times, and struggled to find my way out, which obviously I did. Once I was at my father’s “Sugar House” in the woods near Sherman. I left shortly before dark to walk back to the house to help with evening chores. I thought I knew the woods very well but suddenly realized it was dark and I was just going around a circle back to where I had been. It took me a couple frightened hours to find a way out and coming to a road, walked back to our home. My father and mother were concerned, ready to call out the fire department. No one was more relieved that I.
If we think of ourselves as only being in this trouble filled world, mortal body, that lives a few years, mostly in stress and fear, and then dies returning to dust, we would be considered lost in the woods of life. Some believe if they say the right words and believe in the right savior, their body will be raised up again someday and go up to a place called “heaven.” They are lost too, I believe. Heaven isn’t a place or a condition, but a dimension beyond time and space, an awareness of ourselves as Spirit, as observers looking out at this thing called a body.
The late Jesuit Priest Anthony de Mello was the first Christian teacher who taught me this truth nearly 25 years ago. I had been a minister for over 10 years before I understood this. I had thought up until this time I had to keep working to change the world of bodies to make them live longer, be healthier, be in better relationships with other bodies. Fr. De Mello pointed out I was asleep.
“Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and beauty of this thing that we call human existence. You know, all mystics—Catholic, Christian, non-Christian, no matter what their theology—are unanimous on one thing: that all is well, all is well. Though everything is a mess, all is well. Strange paradox to be sure. But, tragically, most people never get to see all is well because they are asleep. They are having a nightmare.”—Fr. Anthony De Mello in Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality
That’s what I believe Paul meant in Romans 13 when he wrote it is time for us to wake from sleep. “Salvation,” he said, “is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” Many people join religions and churches wanting to believe, and it’s only much later that they really awaken to what it’s all about. Many never even do in this lifetime. They just go through life sleeping in misery, guilt, anger and disappointment, interspersed with periods of “fun” only probably to return for another try. I think that’s what Matthew meant with his writing urging us to “Stay awake.” “You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
A young woman wrote me this past week who now lives in North Carolina near the ocean. She had gone through a confirmation class I had led several years ago. She was sincere and expressed her belief in God, Jesus and eternal life. She became a “certified believer.” But then she wrote me, twenty or so years later saying that she had gone on a four day retreat called “Emmaus Walk” and for the first time ever, felt truly One with Spirit. She described how for the first time ever she felt the experience of having Jesus’ arms surrounding her. “Salvation,” she learned “is nearer than when we became believers.”
In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, one reads of the great fear Tibetan people had of dying before having awakened to themselves as Spirit. They feared if they died in anger, misery, and unforgiveness, then they will need to return in another lifetime to work it through. This may be what Matthew meant in his words about staying awake, being ready for the day of the Lord, the day we suddenly are called out of this body.
The test of our awakening is quite simple; are we happy, joyful, at peace, and forgiving of ourselves and others around us, beginning with our family members. If we can see ourselves as Spirit, then what can anyone do to hurt us, at least for very long. All our hurt, pain, disappointments in others and ourselves is the result of seeing ourselves as bodies. Bodies win and lose, gain and give up, experience happiness and sadness; it’s a constant fight to hang on and stay attached. A free person, awakened to Self as Spirit, can let go, can learn to give up expectations and attachments. A free person can move through losses with hope and freedom. When spouses betray, children disappoint, neighbors hurt and companies fire, they are okay. They bounce back much more quickly. And even when news of the body dying is eminent, they can let go and slip Home in peace.
Of course, this takes remembrance and practice. It’s so easy to forget and slip back into sleep. We need friends and groups and retreats to help us remember our Identities of Love and Spirit. Meister Eckhart, 13th Century church heretic but who now is honored as a true teacher of Spirituality, wrote, “It is not by your actions that you will be saved” (or awakened; call it any word you want), “but by your being. It is not by what you do, but by what you are that you will be judged.”
So we fail, get angry, want to kill at times, but then we check ourselves, forgive in remembrance of who we are, and move on again. Life becomes this wonderful classroom, where every encounter is seen as holy, yet another opportunity to let go, stop judging, and just be the connection of love we are. We stop deciding we know anything for sure, and listen for the Voice of Spirit. We seek to allow this voice to be our Guide, our Companion, our Oneness until in transformation, we are All in All, forever.
A lifetime of decisions And what is there to show?
A few years been and gone, a few years left to go.
Well there’s a difference between living and discovering the truth,
I’ve done too much of the former; it’s been a quite protracted youth.
But when it comes to the later I’ve been an infant nothing more,
I’m finding it a matter for my soul, not mind or body to explore….
Don’t decide, the Voice says, Don’t decide, make no choices,
Don’t decide, and you’ll finally get it right!
–Daniel Nahmod, “Don’t Decide”, 2006 by Nahmod Music