Essays - Spring, 2012
by Randy Roche, SJ
Below is a title and brief description of each essay. To read the essay, click on the title.
Listening - Hearing is usually automatic, while listening is definitely a conscious, ongoing choice.
Storage - We know that we cannot put even a very small amount of faith, hope, or love into containers.
Tamales - Much of the wisdom we acquire in life cannot be taught to us.
Writing - Whether we speak or write, we seem to be solely responsible for whatever we communicate.
Engineering - Our observations of all that is praiseworthy need not be limited to the products of human engineering.
Waiting - When we pause before speaking or acting, we might be waiting for an inspiration.
Compassion - Of all the forms of love, compassion would seem the least likely to attribute to God.
Can and Cannot - We always have an option of looking for what we can do, and focusing our attention in that direction.
Time - Time is not an enemy that orders us around, but a gift of God that we are free to spend as we choose.
Say a Little Prayer - If we reflect a bit about what we mean when we reply to a request to “say a little prayer,” we might be prepared to offer responses that are both more helpful and also personally satisfying.
Big Words - They are not lengthy words, but for those who not only use them, but also reflect on them, their grand-sized meanings, both intellectual and affective, will become apparent.
Winter to Spring, Lent to Easter - Just as some plants need the season of winter in order to bring forth new life in spring, joy does not exist for us without a context of challenges and suffering.
Memory - We are better off having human memory rather than bytes stored on a hard drive.
We hear, to the degree that we are blessed with hearing, but we do not always listen to what we hear. We pay no attention to background noise from the street or to sounds that come to us from indoor or outdoor environments, except when they have a particular relevance for us. At times, we might listen for and hear the sounds of an opening door, because we expect a person to enter, or to some unusual noise coming from our car or within our office or home, precisely because those sounds might convey some useful information.
In conversations, including those with God that we might call “prayer,” listening might require more effort than speaking and also provide us with greater benefits than we could hope to receive by using words. Especially in prayer, but also in most human dialogs, we are “heard” even when we do not speak; we both receive and give much of the regard we have for one another, including unarticulated but important information such as openness and attentiveness, without using words – another form of listening.
Hearing is usually automatic, while listening is definitely a conscious, ongoing choice that admits of various levels of intention and intensity, depending upon the thoughts and feelings that are elicited within us as we listen. Someone might find it quite difficult to receive a compliment, while another person is almost unable to accept even a small, graciously worded criticism. At one time in our lives we might be almost shocked by a self-revelation we receive from a friend, and at another time, not at all. At the moment of first hearing a particular piece of information we might feel disturbance within us, but decide to give no indication of our reaction, and continue listening with the same level of attention as before.
Our hearing might diminish with age, without our having any choice in the matter. But how we listen continues to improve through life, depending upon the degree of our desire to progress. As we become better at listening, we find that our comprehension of what is spoken improves somewhat, but, more significantly, our acceptance of and appreciation for those to whom we listen broadens and deepens. Our love for those whom God loves (besides ourselves) becomes ever more important to us, under the influence of the active presence of the Spirit.
God has been referred to as “The Listener,” based on the experiences of all of us who have become aware that when we pray, we are not “talking to ourselves,” and that we receive consoling support even without the kinds of visual and audible cues that we usually are given in most human conversations. One of the normal consequences of being heard is that we are far more likely to find that we want to become better listeners ourselves. Especially for those of us who have had positive encounters with “The Listener,” we find it natural to ask that we might grow in the desire to listen well to what we hear in all our conversations.
Listening is a gift that we receive, and that we then give to others.
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One of the clearest symbols of the tendency in our culture to receive more than we give of material goods: huge public storage buildings that are almost as commonplace as supermarkets. Most of us have stories about keeping something that we were not using at the time, and after some years, being surprised that we still had whatever it was. Often enough we continue to store the item, thinking that we might want it later. We make jokes at our own expense about how little we really need, and yet how many things we tend to accumulate in drawers, boxes, and other places of storage.
Some of us make valiant efforts to reduce the total amount of our material possessions, and we find it a daunting enterprise. We might be surprised about the amount of energy required for making decisions about items of apparently little value that seem to “own” us rather than the other way around. For some of us, an indirect approach is helpful for regaining independence from the things we retain in various forms of storage.
We know that we cannot put even a very small amount of faith, hope, or love into containers; we have no means for keeping feelings of any kind in a safe place for later use, even though our interior experiences are much more important to us than our physical material possessions. An indirect, effective means for reducing the spiritual and emotional cost of keeping too many belongings is to reflect consciously, and regularly, on the most valuable aspects of our lives: those which must be lived rather than stored.
Since we do not have time or energy for everything or everyone placing demands on us, we owe it to ourselves and to our world of limited resources to honor the desires of our hearts more than the mere habits of acquisition that have grown up within us. Some of our ordinary practices of keeping almost everything that comes to us are like pretty but invasive species of plants that push aside the less flashy but truly beautiful flowers that belong in our gardens. Our lives are about loving behavior, not things, however attractive those might be.
We can lessen the drain on our spirits that is caused by false claims of “we need this” when we look at some of our supposedly important belongings from a perspective of authentic desires. What do we really want for ourselves? Food, clothing and shelter are necessary for life, but so are human dignity, a sense of purpose and meaningful relationships with persons, including the person of God. Rather than think of what we might lose or might have to give up when we consider detaching ourselves from some of our possessions, we can deliberately turn our attention to our worthy goal. We want true freedom from some of the things that we now recognize as having become possessive of us. We want to live free to manifest our love in whatever ways match our inspirations, rather than merely existing as caretakers of containers and closets.
We want to have a life, life as God intends for us, far more than we want to spend our days managing whatever we have in storage.
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I was invited to dine in the home of a family who had come from Mexico. The first tamale I ate was so spicy-hot that my eyes watered, my face was covered with perspiration, and I had to constantly use a handkerchief for my nose. The family members all found my reaction quite amusing, though I was embarrassed. When they later offered me a tamale for dessert, I thought it was almost cruel, after they had seen what happened to me earlier. But I tasted it; the tamale was sweet, not spicy at all. We all laughed, as I learned through experience, that not all tamales are the same.
Someone could have told me about varieties of tamales ahead of time. However, by having experienced the difference in a family meal context, I not only learned about a specific kind of food, but also about cultural diversity, and, most importantly, about how human bonds of friendship often arise more quickly and spontaneously when we cannot maintain our ordinary patterns of behavior. When we engage a new experience with the gifts of heart and mind we have at the time, we are liable to gain more than mere knowledge of facts.
Most of us might prefer to learn about matters of importance in life – far more important than varieties of tamales – by reading or being told, rather than through painful experience. We have all come to understand many helpful ways of thinking and acting from family members, our educational formation, friends, and advisors. But we have also found that only by reflecting on our own experiences – some of them painful - do we learn who we are and how we fit into the world.
Sometimes we suffer as we grow in self-understanding, at other times all seems delightful. Pain or pleasure is not the measure for growth. Many plants deepen their roots and grow stronger after being cut back or having received less, rather than more, water. We discover what is important to us partly by attraction, but also by encountering opposition. We might recall, for example, an occasion when we surprised ourselves by how strongly we defended a person whom we had not previously recognized as particularly dear to us, when his or her reputation came under attack by another person.
Much of the wisdom we acquire in life cannot be taught to us. But, through reflecting on our experiences, we become increasingly aware of how better to manage our relationships with persons and events as well as our physical, social, and spiritual environment. We can learn and improve the ways we deliberate about the choices we make in any and all circumstances.
God and goodness, meaning and purpose: all can be found at any time, and in any place, when it is our determination to seek for them through the process of reflection, when we note for ourselves all that resonates with our spirits.
Hot tamales or sweet, challenging occasions and those that we can handle with habitual ease: all are capable of bearing elements of wisdom for us when we choose to reflect upon the events, thoughts, and feelings that we experience.
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Those who send text messages decide on the abbreviations or words they will use for conveying their intentions to their contacts. For those of us who write notes or send email messages, we also make many choices in selecting the words and turns of phrase that best deliver to others the thoughts, and perhaps some of the feelings, we wish to communicate. No matter how rapidly we compose with a pen or type on a keyboard, we make many and frequent decisions about both the content of our message and the means for communicating it. Sometimes, we might pause before sending a message, permitting us to consider whether or not we are satisfied with our composition, however brief or lengthy it might be.
From one perspective, writing is hard work when compared to placing a phone call, where our voices can carry as much meaning as the words we use, and where we have the benefit of audible cues from the recipients while we are speaking. But as most of us have learned from painful experience, there are times when face-to-face or telephone conversations are liable to increase misunderstandings rather than dispel them. When powerful emotions of anger, hurt, or love are present, writing is sometimes better than immediate contact with another person.
We can prepare ourselves beforehand if we are going to meet or speak with someone about a very sensitive topic, and there are times when we are certain of our responsibility to talk, not write. But when we choose writing as our channel for sending a particular message, we have the options of being able to select some words rather than others, of placing one expression before or after another, and for closely attending to the authenticity of what we say. We also can put as much time and effort as we wish into our writing.
We understand that our best efforts at communicating our intentions may not obtain the results we would like. We are free to decide what we will write and when we will send our message, but we are not in charge of any results, we do not determine recipients’ thoughts or emotions, and we do not control whatever responses they might make to us.
Writing usually allows more opportunity for reflection and prayer than does a conversation, though it only takes an instant to listen for guidance or inspiration when we are speaking with someone. Still, when we write, we are able to pause for as long as it takes to find the manner, tone, direction, and specific words that seem to us appropriate for our needs as sincere communicators.
Whether we speak or write, we seem to be solely responsible for whatever we communicate. But when we are engaged in writing, many of us consciously open ourselves to inspirations, and seek them, even more than when we are speaking. We share the task of writing with God.
Writing is an opportunity for direct communication with God, since our desire to “say the right thing” coincides so very well with God’s desire that we love one another as we are loved.
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A group of us recently watched an eclipse, when the moon passed between us and the sun. We were fortunate to be situated where low clouds passed over us that were just thick enough so that we could look directly at the sun rather needing to peer through extremely dark glass. If a team of engineers had designed the weather pattern that favored our viewing, they could not have done much better. But even more exceptional “engineering” is revealed in the size of the moon relative to the sun, and the distances of the moon from us and the moon from the sun. The shadow of the moon is precisely the size needed to just cover the disk of the sun from our perspective on earth, so that the corona and flares that rise above the body of the sun can be observed. In addition, the orbit of the moon around the earth is so regularly various in its movements that occasional eclipses become not only possible, but predictable.
Over years of observation, scientists of various cultures around the world were able to ascertain the predictability of the moon’s orbit around the earth, and from that knowledge, design calendars that were very helpful in building stable civilizations. Much of scientific understanding follows the same pattern of observing phenomena and learning predictable outcomes, so that engineers of various disciplines may apply what is known to the making of the whole range of human-made projects all over the earth.
If we can admire the pyramids of Egypt and Mesoamerica, the huge bridges and immensely tall buildings of our age, as well as orbiting satellites and electronic devices, we can also give some thought to those aspects of the world about us that we humans have neither made nor engineered, but that make our lives not only possible, but worth living. We can decide to take a few moments to engage in a gratifying and often spiritually supportive exercise that does not require either travel or expense, and for which faith, though not a requirement, adds breadth, depth, and the possibility of experiencing joy. We can reflect on what we have observed and learned, at any time and in any place.
How easy it is to appreciate the immensity of the universe, even without a book or an article in our hands, or a video feed from the Hubble telescope before us. We know enough about the speed of light and the fast-moving galaxies that are farthest from us, to wonder how all this came to be, since even a “Big Bang” requires the pre-existence of “something” before the action took place. The sciences can observe what already exists, remaining appropriately silent about the origin of the material out of which space and time came into being. We can reverence the special kind of “engineering” that could imagine and create, from nothing, the tiny but physical “something” from which has come all that we can now perceive, and all else that we have yet to discover.
Just as we can recall with appreciation the beauty of a spring day, and all the material things and events that we contact through our senses of hearing, taste, touch, sight, and smell, we can also reflect on our internal experiences: we can take joy in acknowledging our freedom to choose, our capability for learning and for understanding, and our spiritual power to believe and to love.
Our observations of all that is praiseworthy need not be limited to the products of human engineering.
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When we say to people, “in a minute,” we are not suggesting that they wait exactly sixty seconds, but we do wish them to pause for a short period of time. If we want to gather some equipment before leaving the place where we are, or if we have to complete a phone call before moving on to another task, we need to wait, or have others wait, until we are ready to take a new action.
If we do not have other persons to consider, and are completely free of external responsibilities, we might think that we no longer have need to wait even a tiny bit before progressing from one involvement to another. But unless we are capable of performing two completely separate activities at the same time, we do well to reset our intention between concluding one engagement of body, mind, and spirit, and beginning another. Without a pause, even if less than a second, we can become the equivalent of a passenger even when our actions appear to be those of the driver. Most of us have experiences of going from one room to another, but forgetting why we did so. Perhaps we moved so quickly from thought to action that we lost track of our objective.
We do not need time for a lengthy reflection before making a transition from working in an office to leaving for home, but the quality of our experiences in each of the two modes depends upon the moments, however brief, in which we decide what we are doing, and why. Everything worthy of our attention deserves also a purpose that is our unique contribution to each effort we make. If we do not take the millisecond or more that is required for connecting motive with action, we might be engaging in “value-subtracted” behavior.
We have heard the saying, “think before you act,” but there is more than thought involved in making decisions that fully utilize our ordinary everyday exercise of spirituality. While we do not want to be considered as irrational, we know from experience that reasons alone to not adequately explain our behavior. We even have a word, “rationalization,” for describing willful setting forth of mere reasons, when our hearts, our spirits, or whatever word we use to describe the interior power by which we recognize right from wrong and better from worse, witnesses within us to our truth.
When we pause before speaking or acting, we might be waiting for an inspiration, or for an interior indication of an appropriate attitude, or for a sense of what might be a more loving approach, or for a tiny but perceptible movement of our spirit that inclines us one way rather than another. Whether we hear within us a call to wait, or have developed the helpful habit of taking care that both mind and heart are in agreement about the thought, word, or action we are about to take, experience confirms the practice of waiting, as eminently beneficial for us and for the world around us.
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The root meaning of compassion is “to suffer with,” as when we visit a sick person or stand by a friend who is having a hard time. If we accompany someone in his or her difficulties “with passion,” we exemplify a variation on the basic meaning of compassion, which focusses on selflessness. Each of the two understandings of the word can help us as we reflect on our experiences of compassion as valuable gifts that we give and that we receive.
Most of us can recall a time when we were sick, and someone, a family member or a friend, though unable to heal us, took the time to be with us, and to appreciate our suffering as of concern to them. In a way, these people suffered a little because we were suffering. Love is like that, at one time sharing, even if to a small degree, our suffering, and also rejoicing with us in the good times. If we remember having benefitted from the compassion of others when we were in need, we know from such experiences that love is more than a nice feeling that comes to people when everything is as they would like it to be. Love and suffering are not mutually exclusive; rather, they often complement each other.
Passion is a word that we might use when describing our deeper desires, as when someone says that “my passion is music.” Passion is closely associated with suffering; the word which we usually consider as describing a positive force in our lives comes to us from a Latin word that conveys the meaning, “suffer.” When we are doing what we love to do and when we think and act from our most authentic desires, we pay little attention to inconveniences, challenges, and even failures, because we give ourselves so completely to our heart’s desires. We do suffer, but even if we are aware of some hurt and loss, our absorbing interest is in the positive movement we choose in following our passion.
Our compassion for others, and theirs for us, follows the same law of love:
When we care about one another, care counts for more that inconvenience. In small ways and in great, we bring what we have to others, and when we let ourselves think and act on behalf of others, our “passion” for such thoughts and deeds becomes manifest. We are most likely indifferent to whatever suffering is involved because of the priority of our concern for someone or for some persons in their needs. We are intuitively compassionate, without needing to think about it, because we too have experiences of pain and suffering.
Of all the forms of love, compassion would seem the least likely to attribute to God. But if we reflect on the suffering of Jesus Christ, a gracious mystery opens for our consideration. Whenever we turn to God in our suffering, we are at that moment, and even beforehand, the objects of God’s compassionate love. God, in Jesus, takes part fully in our suffering as well as in our joy.
Suffering does not represent some kind of failure on our part, or a glitch in the cosmic order of creation; suffering allows for the possibility of compassion, one for another, and always with and through the loving compassion of God.
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Can and Cannot
With our freedom to choose, we can do many things, and there are others that we cannot manage no matter how much we try. If we only count as valuable the things that we can do, and consider all else as either failure or loss, we might miss a great number of very good gifts in life.
Frustration is a temporary experience. As soon as we let something be as it is, whether we made a mistake, others disappointed us, or we could not accomplish what we wanted, we can then begin to imagine another possibility. If we cannot make the sun come out, and cold weather occurs when we had planned an outdoor gathering, we might exercise our organizational skills for getting everything and everyone moved inside, and become creative about seeking ways for guests to enjoy the newly shaped gathering. At times, our intentions are challenged by the circumstances over which we have no control, but we lose nothing just because we cannot change them. We always have an option of looking for what we can do, and focusing our attention in that direction.
Some people say that they cannot reflect on their experience, and that their minds wander down aimless paths of thoughts about nothing unless they are actively “doing something.” Rather than consider the apparent inability as a permanent state, all of us can try some experiments, and find out which might be of benefit for us now. For some, taking a few, conscious deep breaths will allow a brief pause in runaway thinking for just one remembrance of a success and a cause for gratitude. The most helpful experiment of all is also the most simple and direct: to begin with the interior words, “I can,” and follow that with an expression of honest desire. An example: “I can find a way that will work for me.” Believing in possibilities, rather than limiting our thoughts to that which we cannot do, keeps us open to the kinds of surprises in life that bring us joy.
If we consider prayer as communication between two persons, any of us could truthfully say “I cannot pray,” for we cannot carry on a conversation all by ourselves. But we can try to initiate a conversation with another person, and we can seek communication with God. And while there might be some people who will have nothing to do with us, God is always delighted to be with us anytime, anywhere. The only real obstacle to prayer is to deny that the Other could be interested in us, the same belief that often prevents people from seeking to initiate a conversation with anyone they would like to know.
We can desire to pray, and to have interior experiences that encourage and support us in choosing what is better rather than less good. Since we are familiar with modes of communication that we use with humans, we can employ them as analogies when we pray, but not as complete paradigms. God is beyond us, but also within us, which radically and positively affects the ways we can communicate. No matter how many methods we have of being electronically connected with others, or of exchanging wordless heartfelt messages when we are present to one another, only with God do we experience words, and, more often, wordless inspirations, that arise within us as real communication. We could be in a crowded room, and no one seeing us would know or perceive that we are in touch with God.
As an expression of a helpful attitude, “can” takes precedence over “cannot.”
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An alarm clock can only indicate the time of day, not whether we are early or late for getting out of bed. We provide the meaning, and we assign value to our time-governed activities. A good timepiece rarely gains or loses even a second during a day, but we might say that “there are not enough hours in the day” when we like what we are doing, or “time passes too slowly” when we are impatient to be finished.
Whether or not we wear a wristwatch, most of us are not far from indications of time, whether clocks or digital time notations are visible around us, or we receive audible signals that remind us of time-connected events, such as through computer software and handheld electronic devices, as well as announcements on radio and Television. Rarely, except by conscious choice, are we in situations where we have no concern about the time of day or night relative to what we are doing.
Time is a measure, but of another sort than the size and weight of physical materials that we can add to or subtract from as we wish. We cannot change the length of a minute or shorten the duration of an hour. We can stay up later or rise earlier than usual, but we cannot manipulate the speed at which a day or night passes. But if we choose to reflect on the subject of time, we will have easy access to spiritual considerations.
Since time is not under our control any more than is the weather, we have to make appropriate adaptations which are analogous with faith. We only need practical knowledge concerning length when deciding to get a ladder for grasping something higher than our arms can reach. But if we take into account the limited time we have available for sleep, and decide to cut short our evening activities so that we can rise earlier the next morning for some quiet time of reflection and prayer, we are clearly exercising trust in our spiritual knowledge of values and priorities. Similarly, if instead of frustrating ourselves by trying to accomplish everything on our “to-do” list on a given day, we decide to trust that the limited time available serves as a guide and channel for the valuable work we can peacefully accomplish, we are exercising spiritual judgment.
Time is not an enemy that orders us around, but a gift of God that we are free to spend as we choose. If we look at what we do with much of our time, we might note whether or not we spend it in ways that we value. Also, we could wonder whether hours of sleep, or performing mindless ordinary chores, or being incapacitated by illness have any value, especially when compared to accomplishing things that “count” in our world. But whose perspective will we take when we evaluate the use of all our minutes and hours? If we consider that the gift of time comes from the same source of all that exists, we might take consolation from the thought that we are neither the only nor the best judges of how our time is spent.
Perhaps this is a time for us to be grateful that Love is that best judge.
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Say a Little Prayer
Perhaps you have heard, or even said at some time: “Would you say a little prayer for . . . ?” Responses are usually, “Sure.” But what is it that takes place in such a conversation, and what might a dialogue like this mean for us at the time, and even afterwards?
No two relationships are the same, and we think, feel, and act differently according to changing perceptions in every one of our many individual personal affiliations. With some persons, we can talk about God or religious topics, while with others, asking for prayers is the closest we can come to letting them know that we have a need for help that goes beyond what we expect to receive from one another. We speak to them of such a need because, however much we rely on God, we also look for the many kinds of support we can receive from the people we know and trust.
To ask for “a little prayer” is often the easiest means for carefully determining how safe it is to talk about a significant personal concern that warrants God’s assistance. A respondent is free to address either or both points of the request: to enquire about the important issue that the one asking has in mind, and/ or to talk about the kind of prayer that is intended. For example, we could ask about the particular concern, and offer words of encouragement. Or, we could say that we will pray on behalf of the person who asks us. And, we can pick up on both aspects of the request, by talking about the individual’s concern as well as experiences of prayer as they relate to some of the distressing situations we face.
To ask for a “little” prayer would seem to indicate that the person asking considers his or her difficulty of small importance, or does not want to inconvenience anyone, no matter what the gravity of the matter. We are familiar with this kind of courteous request which permits a recipient to respond kindly and with little involvement, or to reply with an offer to hear more about the thoughts, feelings, and concerns that lie behind the request. We can give reassurance that we care about the person with his or her particular difficulty, and that praying is no burden at all (if this is true.)
No matter how gently the topic of prayer might be introduced, if the one asking allows for a response rather than only mentioning his or her need and then literally or figuratively walking away, permission is granted for a bit of dialogue that implicitly includes the subject of communication with God. If we reflect a bit about what we mean when we reply to a request to “say a little prayer,” we might be prepared to offer responses that are both more helpful and also personally satisfying.
If our relationship with God is analogous to that of members of a family or of friendships where we believe that we are loved, we can ask for assistance. We do not always expect that those who care for us can fix every situation, but we trust their support, and it makes a significant difference for us. We can ask God to be with us, and we can likewise ask God to be with those who ask for our prayers.
God is Love, and God of all people. We can “say a little prayer” anytime, anywhere, and on behalf of anyone, including ourselves.
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“Alleluia” and “resurrection” are not every-day words found in the common media but are only used in relation to some specific religious celebrations. They are not lengthy words, but for those who not only use them, but also reflect on them, their grand-sized meanings, both intellectual and affective, will become apparent.
Not everyone enjoys singing out loud in public, even in a church service. But for most, saying or singing “alleluia” with no understanding at all, or with no feelings associated with joy, would be similar to saying “thank you,” but with a frown: contradictory, or at the very least, a disconnect between word-meaning and intention. Alleluia is, at best, an expression of both gratitude and praise directed to God. Though we could use the word in non-religious contexts of joy, alleluia is a kind of “place-holder” for inserting any one of the whole range of possible human responses to the perceived goodness of God.
We speak or sing alleluia in many forms of ritual communal worship where written texts are used, but having become accustomed to its usage, we are free to use the word in spontaneous personal utterances both within and outside of formal religious contexts. Where some of us might say “Wow,” or “Awesome,” we might as readily say “Alleluia!” Depending upon who is with us at the time, and our estimate of how they might interpret our manifestation of joy, we might select one or other word. When it is a matter of internal words that only we perceive, we tend to use those that spontaneously best express our feelings.
While we can freely use “alleluia” in whatever context we choose, “resurrection” has only one meaning and one use in the entire universe. Science has much to say about the “Big Bang” as a unique event, the start of the universe. But the physical sciences have nothing to say about either the origin of the “Big Bang” or the Resurrection of Jesus. There are no video recordings of either event, but there are many witnesses in this present age who can say with assurance that however the universe began, it exists because Love chose for it to be, and that one and only one person, Jesus Christ, fully human and always God, died a human death and rose in the same divine power of Love: “The Resurrection.”
The days pass seemingly the same both for those who believe in creation and those who do not, for those who accept Jesus as God and human who was killed but is forever alive, and those who do not. And however much people like to prove that they are right, we have no coercive reasons for believing or not believing. We do have a capacity to detect, notice, and agree with some thoughts that are accompanied by feelings of peace, accord, refreshment, and even transcendence. And by that same capacity, we can detect, notice, and disagree with some thoughts that are directly connected with a slight tightness and hardening of heart, and also a diminishing sense of our value and of everyone else’s. As confirmation, we could entertain the opposite thought in mind, and carefully observe whatever affective movement it elicits within us.
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Winter to Spring, Lent to Easter
Even in Southern California, spring is visibly preceded by winter, when at least some of the trees lose their leaves and look almost dead for a time, and in spring are covered by the beginnings of new leaves. Some flowers are in bloom no matter what time of year it is, but those who grow fruit and vegetables know what will or will not grow through the winter months. All of us experience the difference between long dark evenings of winter and then the increased hours of daylight that we receive as we move into spring.
Lent ends with Easter in Christian calendars, but Lent, in its root meaning, refers to the solar calendar, and the increased sunlight that is so noticeable with the coming of the vernal equinox. If we did not know the connection between Lent and the increasing hours of daylight, most of us would still appreciate the difference in feelings associated with Lent and Easter. We might prefer the light of Easter to the dark of Lent, but just as some plants need the season of winter in order to bring forth new life in spring, joy does not exist for us without a context of challenges and suffering.
We know sadness in our own lives, and are very much aware of great sorrows of injustice, illness, and suffering in the world about us. None of these experiences are causes for joy. But every time we win even a small victory over a physical, mental, or spiritual obstacle, a smile opens in our hearts, and we are touched by joy. Some of us might live a generally peaceful life, but we notice joy most frequently when we, or anyone we know even remotely, overcomes some form of darkness, no matter for how brief a period of time, or how small the triumph might appear to be in someone else’s eyes.
Easter is not the defeat of Lent, but represents the conquest of the various forms of darkness that threaten or deaden our hearts. Lent is a positive time for coming to terms with one of more of the dark aspects of our lives, whether they are of our own initiation or of others. Easter illumination is brighter and more joyful for us to the degree that, during Lent, we have reflected on the challenges to life that exist within us and about us.
Easter is as personal for us as we are willing to admit. All of the decisions we make, all of our accomplishments and changes of attitude that elicit joy are not “things,” but experiences, and are as spiritual as is love. Many of our experiences of life that move from a sense of winter into that of spring are implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, expressions of our companionship with Jesus Christ, who was as dead as a tree that has been uprooted from the ground, but is more alive now than we and all the rest of creation.
In terms of our relationship with God, Lent like winter, is temporary, but Easter is spring forever.
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Newer computers, with large amounts of “Random Access Memory,” work faster than older units with less RAM. For us, it also seems that younger people can access memory more quickly than older persons. But we are not machines, and as we grow older, we continually add to the sum of memories we have of thoughts and experiences as well as those contained in our very muscles. As the years pass, we notice, perhaps with a bit of annoyance, that some particular memories take more time to recall than they did formerly. But we might benefit by reflecting with gratitude on memory as a great and powerful gift that serves us very well.
While scientists have learned much about the physical operation of memory, our knowledge about it is not nearly as important as is our experience with memory. For every incident of not being able to consciously recall a piece of information when we wanted to, we have many experiences of that very information coming to mind after we stopped looking for it. We expect a computer to give us exact data when we press the right keys. One of the interesting things about us is the kind of pleasure and wonderment we experience when information we could not obtain “on demand” suddenly appears in our minds when we have mentally turned aside. We are better off having human memory rather than bytes stored on a hard drive.
Memory is physical as well as mental. Muscles become accustomed to our way of walking, our posture, and gestures. We can regularly exercise some muscles so that we stand up straight, so that we can tie a knot behind our backs, or get up at night and write a brief note without turning on a light. Our physical senses retain particular memories, as when, for example, we became sick from eating or drinking something, and for a long time afterwards, the slightest scent of that food or taste of that beverage makes our stomachs turn queasy. Memory is protective of our well-being in many ways.
Remembering is spiritual as well as mental and physical. Some memories of past events come spontaneously to mind when we are not looking for them, but when we are ready to reflect on them, or to interpret them in a new and helpful manner. These memories are not like information stored in an archive that cannot be changed. Rather, the past events that surprisingly come to mind at particular moments in our lives are given meaning, through reflection, that could not have taken place within us at the time of their occurrence. However we choose to explain to ourselves how it is that we sometimes remember significant incidents precisely when we are mentally and spiritually prepared to deal with them in a positive fashion, we have cause to be grateful for such experiences.
We have a capacity to deliberately commit some things to memory, though the practice of memorizing is not as simple and direct as placing a paper copy of a poem or picture into a folder. Though we might have motives for memorizing something, we might also be influenced by scarcely recognized preferences or even distastes that make us scarcely able to keep the related information in memory. More positively, as we grow older and probably lose some facility with memorization, we also gain expertise in either working around our limitations, or peacefully acknowledging them as part of our graced reality.
Memory: a gift deserving of gratitude.
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