“Every weak soul which has not learned the truth belonging to her is doomed to remain without any rest or happiness. God’s enlightening word is sweet when it finds ears to hear it; it does not lodge in a closed mind, makes not its way into a polluted shrine.” Prophet Mani, ca. 250 C.E.
God our Creator wants us to be happy! I think often of that old 17th Century Westminster Confession of Faith Catechism which began, “What is the chief end of man?” And the answer was, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever!” Change the sexist language and it’s still a pretty good statement of belief.
Lent is actually a time to enhance our enjoyment of Divine Presence by constantly giving thanks for Divine Enlightenment. Without it, we are as the Prophet Mani wrote in the 4th Century, “doomed to remain without any rest or happiness.” So Lent can be a season of renewed which we all need daily anyway. Let us then let Lent be that way!
The Baptism of Jesus story declares God’s delight in his presence, “You are my Son in whom I am well pleased! (Mark 1:10) God feels the same way toward you and me, but so often we don’t remember or experience it. Our “shrine becomes polluted” in Mani’s words. To renew is to “repent” daily, or continuous work at awareness to keep our minds focused on that which is true rather than that which is false or changeable. Repentance is never a once and for all experience. Meaning “mind changing or turning” it is an ever ongoing process in our living here on earth in ego centric bodies. Trust me, changing one’s mind daily is for more than just politicians! We’re all in this together.
The traditional church, and the Presbyterians are no exception, has emphasized our sinfulness and “total depravity.” We heard it when children, when we attended Sunday schools, and when we do not respond hard enough to alleviate “social injustices” in the world. What happens, however, when a parent constantly tells the child he or she is bad, innately a sinner, and destined to hell unless they confess a proper creed and do the correct actions? So often they grow up with the same beliefs and because they are bad sinners, they project it out onto others. For four centuries Christians in Europe have hated and warred against other Christians who were worse sinners than they.
I have discovered the way to train a dog is to love it and give constant compassion and patience. I saw on TV a few days ago Caesar, the “Dog Whisperer!” He demonstrated how to train a large dog from chasing and attacking other dogs by treating it with firm kindness and respect. And it didn’t take long for the dog respond either.
I cringe a bit when I hear people tell me what awful sinners they are. It’s almost a badge of being a “true Christian.” Ministers tell people to spend six weeks of Lent focusing on how sinful and bad they have been. Even give up some candy to show one’s remorse! How silly it seems. I prefer to announce the Voice Jesus heard and wants us to hear, “You are my beloved Son, and I am very well pleased with you!”
But how can we know we are really happy, living good lives? Wonderful feelings of joy and happiness can be delusional. We have them one day, one hour, one minute, and they fly away. How can we keep such blessed rest and happiness? Someone wrote me saying how much inspiration he received from watching the funeral service for the talented and beautiful Whitney Houston. He asked, “How can I know such joy and happiness are genuine?” I wrote back saying it is refined and tested in times of being alone and quiet. The Bible says that right after Jesus heard the Voice saying how pleased God was in Him, he was driven into the desert for testing! He spent 40 days alone wrestling with his “demons.” We can do the same.
Human beings don’t necessary think of being alone as a way to increase happiness but it can be one of the deepest ways to find and experience it. I once wrote a 200 page paper on the value of solitude. People who like or enjoy being alone are often diagnosed as sick and antisocial with need of therapy. In March 2003, two psychologists, James Averill and Christopher Long, wrote a paper titled, “Exploration of the Benefits of Being Alone.” Some described it as a landmark article, helping to change American attitudes from seeing people who live alone as sick and abnormally unhappy. Most articles up to that time treated living alone or wanting to be alone as a disease and dysfunctional! (“Sweet Solitude, Part 1: Two Meanings of Alone” by Bella DePaulo, Ph.D, published in “Living Single”, March 20, 2011)
Today 31 million Americans live alone and over 100,000 million have been divorced and widowed. Living alone does not mean one is lonely. Some of the loneliest people are married with families. Millions of couples live lonely lives of separation and disappointment. However, in the past ten years people have been writing more about the importance of being alone and finding happiness and peace. From that discovery, people are in a better state to give harmony and beauty to others. Maybe they read my paper?
I think of the story Fr. Tony De Mello told of a British party in which the philosopher Bertram Russell attended alone. People were drinking and laughing and finally someone walked up to Mr. Russell and asked, “Are you enjoying yourself?” And Bertram answered, “Yes I am, I am enjoying my Self very much, thank you!”
Being alone can help the process referred to in the little book of 1 Peter saying of Jesus, “He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit….” (1 Peter 3:18) It symbolized a purging away of attachments to be with other people in order to discover the wholeness of oneself. Yes, at times there is deep suffering in aloneness but in time, if persistent, we come to the “still point” of sensing our One with Everything!
Putting to death the ego body yearnings can be difficult. It is like breaking an addiction to people and entertainment. It involves a degree of suffering and anguish. Such suffering however can become transformative and redemptive. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 that unearned suffering becomes redemptive. It means when we willingly choose to suffer without retaliation but in quiet, nonviolent persistence, changes are made to oneself as well as to the world around us. Being alone can cause deep anguish and suffering but patiently endured, it brings the bright dawn of rising sun into our lives.
When I first got into my own search for solitude and its benefits, our organist at Wayside would often chide me. She felt I was working too hard and perhaps needed more mental therapy. But in the following years, she once took a vacation with her husband to the desert in Utah. After being there for several days, she returned and burst into my office exclaiming; “Now I know what you mean!” She returned several times in the following years. Later she was diagnosed with a serious brain cancer and spent part of her last days in the desert before returning home to die. Her grave in Hamburg has a beautiful monument with a brilliant carving of the desert radiating peace and love.
Are you today experiencing peace and happiness? Try going away from the ordinary attractions of life to a quiet place for retreat. You don’t need to go to a desert, but if the opportunity arises, I recommend it. Yet you can find a quiet place in your home and sit 30 minutes or so watching your breath, repeating a verse or phrase. Soon you might experience your Self. You could sit still on your lawn, take a walk in the woods, or go climb a mountain! Thomas Merton used to say, during his years as a Franciscan in Olean, how rich Western New York was as a place of contemplation and solitude but few seemed to see it.
When the young man Thomas Merton finally left Olean and committed himself to a Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky, he struggled to overcome his propensity to be among people, and women! (He claimed they were the most beautiful of God’s creation!) Finally he was permitted to move to a small hermitage in the woods near the monastery center. He spent several months there and his sense of being One and surrounded by Divine Presence became overwhelming. He traveled into the nearby city of Louisville and as he stood on a corner among people, he felt his arms were around all in one Great Spirit of love!
Are you living with a fairly constant degree of rest and peace in your life? If not, a Lenten decision to find abundance in being alone in the desert someplace might be a commitment to make. When you return, people may not agree with you, always support you, or even like you, but you will have peace and be able to follow down the road with a little more appreciation of what has been described as the Presence of Jesus himself.
“Every weak soul which has not learned the truth belonging to her is doomed to remain without any rest or happiness.” So wrote Mani centuries ago. Get to the desert, the prayer closet of your life, and you will sense how good you really are, the very Son or Daughter of God.