Searching

2483710127_771d90b5f0_oIf I just sit here, God, and
try to feel you,
or know You,
in a way I cannot
doubt or explain,
will you come, and
be with me?
Or will my foot that
falls asleep, and
my mind that
begins to write, and
the washer that beeps, because
my laundry is done and ready
for me to dry and fold and put away,
distract me from
all that is You
with me, here
as I sit
and search?

[Feature Image: Via Tsuji]

Intentionally Blank

In an article from The Write Practice, Jeff Elkins offers tips on how to find your “Thoughtful Spot.” This is a trick, Elkins writes, that he learned from Winnie the Pooh. “His Thoughtful Spot was a log under a tree marked by a sign that read, ‘Pooh’s thotful spot.’ It was the place where Pooh did his best thinking. It was where he got his inspiration when his well ran dry.”

After reading this article, I wandered across campus to one of my Thoughtful Spots, our college’s art gallery. I love walking through this gallery—slowly, attentively—when no one else is around. As I move from piece to piece my mind clears of the to-do list that has been oppressing me. I feel myself softening and opening in that creative space as I consider and contemplate the art. How did the artist create this piece? What inspired her? What materials did he use and why did he choose this medium? What does this piece mean to the artist? What does it mean to me?

Then I came to this piece, entitled, “Training” by my artist friend Stephanie Baugh.

image

I love Stephanie’s collages. She pulls together images that always give me pause. This piece, in particular, caught my attention because of the white label with the words, “Intentionally Blank” typed in bold, capital letters. This sticker placed in the sky above the contemplative figurines seemed playful and humorous. It made me smile. It also reminded me of an important lesson I have learned through my meditation and writing practices: I need to make space for new thoughts and ideas to emerge. I need to find my way to “thoughtful spots.” I need to calm and clear my frantic, monkey-mind that climbs every distraction. I need to set aside my oppressive to-do list and clear away the clutter if I want the Muse (or as I like to call her, the Holy Spirit) to move and speak. I recently heard a writer say that we have to serve the Muse, if we want the Muse to serve us. This means giving Her our time and attention, clearing space for Her, leaving a part of ourselves intentionally blank, so we can receive what She offers. Our creative well will continue to run dry if we are not intentional about this practice.

The Burden of Judgment

burden_of_memoryThomas Merton stood at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in a busy shopping district of Louisville, Kentucky, when he was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that he loved all those people. That they were his and he was theirs, that they could not be alien to one another even though they were total strangers.[1]

The evenings of my recent winter break were spent reading and contemplating Merton’s words.  More than any other spiritual writer, he makes me pause to survey my interior life.  During those quiet evenings I realized how burdened I had become by judgment rather than love.  Certain people had taken up residence in my mind—they had moved in, it seemed, just to spite me.

I recalled the smug face of the old, white, pastor who once invited me to sit down for a “get-to-know-each-other” chat.  Then he stretched out his legs, put his hands behind his head and talked about himself for the good part of an hour.  Perhaps this wouldn’t have angered me so much, if hours, months, even years of my life had not already been stolen by other men like him—arrogant wind bags who do nothing but talk about nothing, and yet believe they are something.

Next the freshman football player came to my mind—a handsome, strong young man, with an olive complexion and beautiful hair—who, last autumn, sat on the front row of the auditorium, smirking and whispering rudely to his friends while I gave a presentation on the heritage of our college (a subject I care deeply about.)  He disrupted and angered me, which helped him powerfully manipulate the space.  It was all I could do not to call him out and tell him he was behaving like a real ass.

Finally, a handful of young college women arose out of my quiet contemplation.  The ones who are growing bored with me and my style of religion because it is “too political.”  They are not interested in immigration issues or the conflict between Israel and Palestine.  Theirs is a personal Savior who calls them to an outreach of making disciples.  They want to travel the world, spread the Good News of the Gospel, and pose for Facebook with an African baby in their arms.

“The saints are what they are,” Merton writes, “not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else.”[2] 

Okay, dear friend Merton, I asked, how do I love and admire these people?  Their behavior turns my mood black.  They trap me in obsessive recall as their words and faces tediously run through my mind—leaving us all in need of liberation.

“[The saints have] a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals.  It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning other men.”

Realizing the burden I carry, I finally took these people to the mat—the meditation mat, that is, where I go whenever I feel foul.  I held each one in my mind as I sought to create (like Merton did) a space of compassion.  They irritated me, at first, because here they were again, intruding on my life and my quiet.  But, in the light of compassion, these burdensome people slowly began to transform.

“A man becomes a saint not by the conviction that he is better than sinners but by the realization that he is one of them, and that all together need the mercy of God.”

I began to notice the deep need in the old, white pastor to be relevant in a world (“his” world) that was shrinking all around him.  And I noticed the demanding and tiresome nature of the freshman football player’s ego—an ego that expected this boy to constantly perform for others and control his space.  And I discovered the frailty and insecurity of the young, evangelical women, as well as their desire for a religion that might finally make them feel good about themselves.  And then I found myself in the midst of these bothersome people—each human like me—and I recognized their needs are mine as well.  I, too, desire to be relevant.  I, too, struggle with my ego.  I, too, am frail and insecure.

Which is, perhaps, good to know—but hard to live with.  I don’t want to be like these people.  I want to be better.  And in being better, I want to push them aside, rejecting them for my, more noble, path.

This, in turn, made me realize how I am reduced by judgment. I know I cannot be more than I am until I lay myself down with the wind bag, the pompous jock, the Facebook queens, and embrace them as I would my own frail heart.


[1] Thomas Merton, “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” (Doubleday, New York, NY, 1965), pg. 156.

[2] All italicized quotes are from Thomas Merton’s, “New Seeds of Contemplation,” pg.