The text of this sonnet can be seen at the end of this reflection. You can download a pdf of the reflection and sonnet here: In All Things Thee to See reflection
This is a poem about seeing, both literally and, more importantly, figuratively—about where we focus our heart and mind and what truth we perceive.
How we see ourselves determines how we treat others, it determines our ethics, so it has enormous consequences in the world.
How we see the earth and our place in it determines how we treat other creatures and the ecosystems that support all life.
The Golden Rule, or loving your neighbor as your self, is at the heart of all the major religions and systems of ethics.
Loving your neighbor as your self requires having both a true perception and a healthy love of your self and the world.
Loving your neighbor as your self does not mean merely that you love your neighbor in the same way that you love yourself. It means waking up to the reality that you and your neighbor truly are one self in very slightly different manifestations.
Loving your self does not mean selfishness or self-infatuation or narcissism, because your true self is not your selfish ego. Your true self is the spirit of the universe that created you flowing through you, it is the part of you that every other created being shares.
Your self is not your self, it belongs to the universe. As Teilhard de Chardin saw, our self is not a part of the universe we own wholly, it is the whole of the universe that we own partly. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Science and Christ (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), pp.12-13)
To love your self, then, is to love the whole universe that you share with every other self as one.
We see this truth by shifting our focus away from our old way of looking at our self.
The slogan of John the Baptist and Jesus is translated in most Bibles, “Repent, for the realm of God is at hand.” The word translated as repent is metanoia in the original Greek. In this context it means to expand the vision of our heart, mind and spirit to a new perspective that can see God’s realm of true oneness here on earth.
We have to let go of our old focus in order to have a new focus. We need to empty ourselves of the self-will and craving and clinging of our ego so that we can look more deeply at our true self and the true nature of the universe.
The Christian spiritual path calls this step kenosis, the Greek word used in the New Testament for self-emptying. Kenosis leads naturally to metanoia. When we empty ourselves of our false self the true self becomes unhidden.
The result of kenosis and metanoia is agape, the Greek word for a love that is God-like and Christ-like, that sees universal oneness and loves its neighbor as itself. Agape is not based on the worthiness of others, nor is it trying to make ourselves worthy, it is simply allowing the spirit of the universe to flow through us. It is what we were created to do.
We urgently need to let that spirit flow through us now because our world is in trouble.
Every time we practice expanding and deepening our vision, seeing ourselves and our world more truly, we are moving humanity a step closer to creating the realm of God on earth, a sustainable harmony grounded in justice, compassion and love, what my brother George calls a Golden Civilization.
It all starts with seeing—seeing what is golden in our hearts, and recognizing that same ember in all things.
In All Things Thee to See
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.
from George Herbert’s “The Elixir”
My woodstove has a window in its door
because it warms the heart to watch the flames.
Right now, my vision through the glass is poor,
part glare, part soot. My eyes are playing games.
They seek my presence in the vague reflection,
or fixate on the dark, obscuring flaws.
I have to force my eye to shift direction
and choose to see the gold behind the gauze,
beyond this drawn-down blind that judging mind
can make of anything we crave or hate.
Surfaces hold us when what wait behind
are gifts of light upon a sacred grate.
Training my eye to see past its desire
I pass through glass and fill with golden fire.
copyright 2021 Thomas Cary Kinder
The text of this sonnet can be seen at the end of this reflection.
A reader expressed some discomfort with this sonnet for two reasons. I realize that many if not most readers could have the same discomfort, so I will address it as a way to reflect on what usefulness I see in this poem. Before I do, though, I suggest you take two minutes to watch the video.
Their discomfort: On the one hand, wine and chocolate are not problems to them. On the other hand, guilt and shame are serious problems and this poem pushed those buttons.
The sonnet says,
he binged on wine and sinful chocolate cake,
helpless, possessed by fleshly appetite,
his one concern, the shape his flesh would take.
I realize that wine is not harmful for everyone and that chocolate cake may be “sinfully good” without being sinful in any other way. They happen to be problems for the character in the sonnet, but readers should interpret them merely as symbols of whatever similar substances, activities or thoughts have the same effect for them.
What is it in your life that hooks you and makes you think, say or do something that you know is not good for you? What makes you feel helplessly possessed by desire to some degree, however small? What swings your focus onto your ego or surface self? What makes you overly concerned about your appearance or any other superficial means toward feeling worthy of approval in others’ eyes or your own?
The last line talks about dirt, and that’s one of the jokes in this poem. You can see in the video that I am treating lightly and humorously this heavy and important spiritual topic. The poem is about the dirty little secrets we all have, the weaknesses, flaws and foibles we would rather hide. It is about throwing open the curtains and windows and letting light and fresh air get in to expose the dirt for what it is and then transform it.
The usefulness of the poem is exactly the opposite of making us feel guilt and shame. A good organic gardener will have weeds that need to be pulled. That is part of the job—dealing with a natural occurrence that is not bad, not sinful, not anything to feel guilty or ashamed about, but something that is counterproductive to a garden’s beautiful fruitfulness.
Every once in a while the weeds will get ahead of the gardener. That’s life. Again, it’s not an occasion for guilt or shame, but for understanding and compassion and, yes, if possible, a sense of humor.
Coleman Barks’ translation of the Rumi poem entitled “The Guest House” captures this delightfully. It ends:
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
(Click here to read the entire short poem. If you don’t know it, I highly recommend it. It’s a treasure!)
So where is the “guide from beyond” in the sonnet, “Eradicating Endlessly,” leading us?
To have humility and accept the dirt and the unhealthy, unwanted plants that naturally keep sprouting in our very human humus.
And then to get down on our knees and pull more root.
It’s just part of the job of being a gardener, tending the growth of our true self, clearing the way for the Spirit so that we can fulfill our calling and use our gifts and our entire life to bear the fruit the universe needs of us.
The Greek word “kenosis” is what we call self-emptying in the Christian spiritual tradition. The concept is not exclusively or originally Christian—it is at the core of every contemplative path, every form of meditation, every process of seeking the oneness that is the most mature stage and state of human development.
If you want to grow horticulturally, you will need to practice weed-control; if you want to grow spiritually, you will need to practice self-emptying.
It will be a struggle sometimes, but as Swahili wisdom puts it, “celebrate the struggle!” You might as well greet the weeds laughing as they sprout in your soul.
You will probably reach your goal sooner if you can do it from a place of humor and compassion rather than guilt and shame. You will probably get more skillful more quickly at eradicating the dirty-secret thought-roots before they become action-fruits if you are not also having to eradicate the more pernicious ego-weeds that stem from taking yourself too seriously or pridefully.
I hope this sonnet will help you remember to do your work cheerfully, or at least to do your work! And I hope you will find it useful to remember that you are not alone in that garden. We’re on our knees right alongside you, day in and day out, and will be forever, celebrating the struggle. Happy eradicating!
He meant to write about a sick plant’s death,
and how he pulled its roots up from the pot,
and how the hole it left inhaled fresh breath
and gained new life, refilled with rich, dark rot.
He thought to symbolize his ego’s rout,
how he effected its eradication
and nurtured his true self—aversion, doubt,
attachment, gone! A fertile, new creation!
He would have written that, except last night
he binged on wine and sinful chocolate cake,
helpless, possessed by fleshly appetite,
his one concern, the shape his flesh would take.
His worst self sprouts another fat, pale shoot.
His hand sinks back in dirt to pull more root.
copyright 2021 Thomas Cary Kinder
The text of this sonnet can be seen at the end of this reflection.
Epiphany comes from an ancient Greek word meaning to reveal. When we say we have had an epiphany we mean the recognition of a truth that has suddenly been revealed to us, an “aha!” moment. The church season after Christmas is called Epiphany because it celebrates God’s presence on earth revealed not only in Jesus but also in the manifestations of light we can see in all people and all nature.
Humanity needs both kinds of epiphanies right now as we search for a way forward through a world that has been made strange to us by our own actions.
We need to see new truths, and we need to see ancient truths anew. We need to shape a new story out of the old, expressing a new understanding of our place and purpose in the universe. Following our old story, our society has become polarized, our earth unstable, greed out of control. Racial, economic and environmental injustice are bringing society to the point of upheaval. And yet the heart of the old story has truth in it that we need to carry forward.
The violent riot that smashed its way into the United States Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 carried signs, shouted slogans and blasted music that identified it as a white supremacist, fundamentalist, Christian-nationalist event.
The word epiphany comes from the ancient Greek verb “to reveal.” The church holy day of Epiphany celebrates the Magi seeing the presence of God—the spirit that created the universe—revealed in Jesus. The church season of Epiphany is about recognizing that same spirit’s manifestation not only in Jesus but in other people, in nature and in ourselves.
The word epiphany in everyday use means an “aha!” moment. To have an epiphany is to have an insight that feels like an urgent truth revealed.
Right now humanity is facing a multidimensional global emergency. We need epiphanies, and we need the spiritual wisdom that the church tradition of Epiphany can reveal, to help us resolve these crises.
Epiphanies pave the path to a new consciousness. We can help our entire culture move along that path by sharing our own epiphanies of the Spirit’s guidance, and our insights into the purpose for our lives, and our glimpses of the light shining ahead that beckons us toward a healthy, just and sustainable way of living on earth.
The Hubble telescope is a metaphor for what epiphany calls us to do—peer into the depths of the universe within and around us and send back what we find.
This is an extraordinary half-hour film. You can watch it by clicking on the image above, but I encourage you to read the background about it first at https://deepfieldfilm.com/. Particularly read about the composition of the music, which is equal in importance to the breath-taking images. The music is designed to follow the history of the Hubble telescope and to reflect the experience of humanity receiving Hubble’s epiphanies. The choir that you hear in the vocal portions is made up of over 8000 voices of all ages from 120 countries, and you will see some of their faces at one point in the film. It is as if the earth itself is singing, and we are merely the part of the earth that was created to attain this universal consciousness and sing its song. The video is intended to spark epiphanies in us and be a religious and transformative experience.
We need epiphanies now, both ancient and modern.
The Christian tradition of Epiphany comes from the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew where the Magi follow a star to the child Jesus. The Magi were a combination of contemplatives and scientists. They were priestly holy people and wisdom seekers who were steeped in the most advanced observed knowledge of nature. They believed that the spirit of the universe was trying to communicate with humans so they studied the skies for signs and listened to voices in their dreams.
We can look to similar sources for the epiphanies we need. The spirit that created nature speaks through other life forms to help us understand what it needs from us in order to sustain life. The spirit that evolved our consciousness speaks to us from our depths and helps us keep evolving.
We need to be both scientists and contemplatives to catch the epiphanies the spirit is trying to give us now.
We need to cultivate our heart’s core, our inner Golden Room, the place within us each where we meet the spirit, where we find the ability to perceive intuitively what God or the universe is saying.
It takes courage to open ourselves to urgent truths because they can be painful. The second chapter of Matthew describes how Herod responded when he realized that the Magi had disobeyed him. He sent soldiers to slaughter all the children near Bethlehem two years old or younger. Humanity’s failures to follow the spirit’s way of universal love can be excruciating to see.
Even beautiful epiphanies require courage to embrace, though, because they lead us into the unknown, which we fear. They change our consciousness, and they ask us to act in new ways that go against our cultural norms and comfort zones. Joseph was warned in a dream to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus to save themselves from Herod. Imagine that.
The epiphanies of ancient spiritual tradition and modern insight are aligning now like Jupiter and Saturn, like the star of Bethlehem. They offer hope that we might yet save the earth from the crises that humanity’s failure to follow the way of love has created.
We exist for a purpose.
Why did the spirit of the universe that orders the galaxies and created life on earth evolve human consciousness? The Hebrew wisdom teachers pondered this question thousands of years ago and recorded their epiphanies in the creation stories of Genesis.
God put us in this garden “to till it and keep it.”
We exist to serve life.
Over the millennia we have come to understand that this means our life, but not just our life. Our family, but not just our family. Our nation, but not just our nation.
The most urgent epiphany for the twenty-first century is that the creation is truly one, and we need to declare allegiance to all life, especially to the most vulnerable, including strangers and enemies and the ecosystems on which life depends. We need to think locally and act locally with love and care, but also with an awareness that humans are no longer residents of their local place alone.
This planet is our one and only garden, a small, fragile home we share with all life.
If you travel to the moon and look back at earth you see that it is a beautiful, lush oasis, and tiny compared to the vast desert of lifeless space. The nearest planet that has the potential to be a garden like earth is 4.2 light years away, which doesn’t sound that far until you do the math and realize that our fastest rocket traveling 20,000 miles per hour would take around 140,000 years to get there.
This planet holds our only chance to survive. If we wreck it, we have nowhere to go. If we cannot learn to get along, if we cannot live ethically, if we cannot love and have compassion for one another here, we won’t do it anywhere. If we cannot change in this generation, humanity may not exist for another generation to try again to get it right.
Every one of us contributes to a cumulative human impact that now literally outweighs all other life on this planet combined. An estimated fifty-one trillion microplastic particles pollute the waters of the oceans, and they have been found in the waters of the womb as well, and in the air of our cities and the air of our lungs.
Our impact on the earth in one place can lead to a pandemic that infects all places. The deterioration of the climate from our way of living threatens every species.
Our allegiance to all life as one makes it the urgent responsibility of us each to act in ways corresponding to the emergency we are in—arguably the greatest emergency humanity has ever faced.
The most urgent thing we are called by the universe to learn now is how to manage a planet.
I was thinking the other day about how the “eco” in economy or ecology comes from a Greek word meaning house. That night I had a dream that I was trying to sell my home. An authority—a realtor or banker—kept telling me bad news about my house’s value. First it was devalued because of racism—it had been built partly by enslaved people. Then it was devalued because of economic inequity—the paid workers brought home a tiny fraction of the what the bosses received. Then it was devalued because of environmental exploitation—it both wasted and used too many resources. The list went on until the value was less than nothing—I would have to pay the next owner of my house to take it off my hands.
To manage a planet we first need to manage our own egos—our selfish ambitions, our fear and greed. We need to learn how to have a wise, mature level of consciousness that is capable of loving all creation as one inextricably united self.
If we can evolve to that new level of consciousness as a culture, then we will naturally learn how to manage our lives as individuals and as societies in such a way that we nurture the life-sustaining health of every ecosystem. We will naturally live by the Golden Rule and love of neighbor with compassion for the vulnerable and oppressed. Racial, economic and environmental justice will naturally happen.
Epiphanies pave the path to a new consciousness.
This leads us back to the need to be like the Hubble telescope, with our heart’s Golden Room wide open to the epiphanies that the spirit of love and life and light is trying to help us see. We need to expand the vision of our hearts and minds, what the ancient Christian tradition calls metanoia, and we need to share widely and compellingly the epiphanies that our expanded vision sees.
Part of what we need is a new story, based on a new understanding of who we are and what our place is in the universe. Below is the trailer for another remarkable film, this time using words for its narrative. If you have not experienced it, prepare yourself for more epiphanies and another step on the journey toward the new consciousness humanity needs.
Click here to find your way to the full film and other related resources.
“The feast of Christmas is the celebration of divine light breaking into human consciousness…. The joy of Christmas is the intuition that all limitations to growth into higher states of consciousness have been overcome. The divine light cuts across all darkness, prejudice, preconceived ideas, prepackaged values, false expectations, phoniness and hypocrisy…. The kairos, ‘the appointed time’ is now.… Now is the time to risk further growth. To go on growing is to be at the cutting edge of human evolution.…” Thomas Keating, The Mystery of Christ
This is the calling of every human. To paraphrase the popular wisdom of Richard Bach: Here is a test of whether your consciousness is done evolving: if you’re alive, it isn’t.
The quote above by Thomas Keating was from one of his early books. Late in his life he spoke at a conference as if continuing the thought:
“Jesus goes on to say…, ‘Everybody who’s a human being is a candidate for this and has the resources to do it, if they will take the trouble to learn how to…let God be God in us.’ And so he says, ‘Anyone at all who brings himself or herself to nothing will find out who they are….’ Who are we at the deepest level? Have we a self at all, or are we really the manifestation of the Divine…? So, the plan is to be God in the humblest kinds of ways. That seems to be the program for this life, so why not…put everything into it that you have?” Incarnation Continua, from the 2015 Return to the Heart of Christ Consciousness Conference, Boulder, Colorado
We need to put all we have into the transformation of our consciousness right now. It is a matter of life or death for our nation, our species and all life on earth.
The reason why is that “Transformed people transform people,” as Richard Rohr says. Transforming ourselves is the place to start in our efforts to transform the world.
World transformation is of the utmost urgency. We need human civilization to evolve to fulfill the wisdom of all the spiritual traditions that agree on certain fundamental principles that make life ethical and sustainable like the Golden Rule, love of neighbor and universal compassion.
We need to evolve to a new collective consciousness that sees the oneness of all people, creatures and ecosystems on this planet and that recognizes our need for justice, equity and a sustainable harmony between all people and between humans and the earth, as the Earth Charter describes.
Therefore we need to evolve to that consciousness ourselves as individuals.
The seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany in the Christian calendar are all about that evolution.
The secular celebration each December 31st includes the ritual of making resolutions. The most important resolution we can make right now is to dedicate ourselves to the process of personal and world transformation. In other words:
Resolve to evolve.
The wisest have been calling for this since the days of the Hebrew Prophets, Greek philosophers and spiritual teachers in Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Taoist and Indigenous traditions.
Gus Speth quotes many recent voices including Vaclav Havel, Aldo Leopold, Erich Fromm, Thomas Berry and Mary Evelyn Tucker in his lead essay in the book, The Coming Transformation: Values to Sustain Human and Natural Communities.
Gus says, “What these authors and many others are saying is that today’s challenges require a rapid evolution to a new consciousness. That is a profound conclusion. It suggests that today’s problems cannot be solved with today’s mind.”
So how can we evolve as quickly as we must, both as individuals and as a global culture? Continue reading
Everyone can feel joy at Christmas no matter what their spiritual path because we celebrate the birth of a human who attained the highest stage and state of human consciousness, who embodied the oneness with all creation, the universal compassion and love of neighbor that flow from a fully evolved and mature heart and mind.
He saw from his advanced consciousness that anyone could attain this maturity, that humanity could someday get there as a whole and society be characterized by oneness, compassion and love. He called it the realm of God on earth, life in harmony with the spirit of the universe, and he said we were close to getting there.
The reason everyone can feel joy during Advent is that it prepares us to have that same heart and mind. This is the advent we are seeking and now we are two thousand years closer.
That enlightened human urged us to undertake the journey, and he taught us how. .
The future of human civilization and all living beings depends on this shift to a new sustainable, just and harmonious life on earth happening as quickly as possible. We will not survive long without attaining this new consciousness.
That is why Advent and Christmas are such gifts, because if we immerse ourselves in the spiritual journey they map out it will lead to our transformation and the transformation of the world.
Below are three reflections and sonnets for the final days of Advent leading up to Christmas. I hope they help you on your journey and help you undergo the next transformation the Spirit needs you to make. I hope they increase the love and light you shine to transform the world around you.
The Buddhist philosopher Ken Wilber says that one of the things that helps us on the journey toward the most mature level of consciousness is simply knowing that it is there to be attained, and that we are created and called to strive for it. No matter what our age or situation in life, we can move toward it, and it is one of the most important things that we can do for the world.
Madeleine L’Engle, the author of Wrinkle in Time and sixty other books, wrote a profoundly wise one entitled Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. In the passage below she talks about Mary the mother of Jesus as a model for how artists respond to their calling, but I encourage you to broaden the meaning to be about any person with any calling—including the important tasks life is asking of you now. Understand that when this passage says artist it means you, whatever your gifts may be:
“The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birthgiver. In a very real sense the artist (male or female) should be like Mary who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command….
“I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.’ And the artist either says, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord,’ and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary….
“What would have happened to Mary (and to all the rest of us) if she had said No to the angel? She was free to do so. But she said, Yes….
“Mary did not always understand. But one does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding…there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing—knowing things which we are not yet able to understand.” (pp 18 ff)
Believe There Can Be Fulfillment
“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Luke 1:45
“Blessing always comes from trusting that God’s Word will be fulfilled.” Alan Culpepper in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on this verse
We each are born with our own Mary womb.
We all have gifts that come down from above,
or up from deep within—our Golden Room,
our greatest height and depth, our source of love
and life and light within our spirit’s heart
where truth and beauty rise, a hidden spring
that flows with what is our own form of art,
of bearing Christ, of Mary mothering.
The question is, do we believe that Word?
Even to hear it takes some faith, some trust,
but do we trust enough once we have heard
to act upon it, feeling that we must,
believing in this blessing God has willed
of gifts to share, Christ’s love through us fulfilled?
Advent calls us to wait and watch and pray, to make a contemplative journey through the darkness in preparation for the coming light.
If we take Advent as a time of inner reflection we are likely to see some unpleasant things about ourselves that are hidden in our darkest shadows. We need to face them as part of our preparation for spiritual growth to a new level of consciousness.
Thomas Keating writes about this in his classic introduction to Centering Prayer, Open Mind, Open Heart. “Our so-called good intentions look like a pile of dirty dishrags. We perceive that we are not as generous as we had believed. This happens because the divine light is shining brighter in our hearts. Divine love, by its very nature, accuses us of our innate selfishness.”
Mary serves as a model of how we can be transformed so that love and light can transform the world through us, and it can be discouraging or even downright depressing in Advent when our inner reflections or outer challenges show us how flawed we are compared to her.
The 20th Century Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, said that the perception of Mary as an exalted object of reverence can be misleading and unhelpful. The reason she is highest, he says, is because she is lowest, having the humility and peace “without which we cannot be filled with God.”
Merton says that Mary’s greatest glory is that she “in no way resisted [God’s] love and [God’s] will… She was free from every taint of selfishness that might obscure God’s light in her being…. [She was] as pure as the glass of a very clean window that has no other function than to admit the light of the sun.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp 167-175)
Our calling is to be like Mary as much as we can, but Thomas Keating understood that we do not have to wallow in our flaws, nor do we have to spend years of arduous asceticism, scrubbing our fingers to the bone to purify our panes of glass. All we have to do is let go and return our focus to a simple consent to God’s loving and transforming presence within us.
If we turn our flawed hearts and minds to the light, the light will prepare us for the transformation we seek.
Preparing the Stable
For you to have your birth in this old stable
I need to free up one sufficient stall
and make it clean, as much as I am able:
freshen the bedding; scrub down every wall.
To make of it a Christly habitat
it must be humble, full of love and true,
a place as welcoming to goat or rat
as Spirit made flesh, pure of heart, born new.
But my old habits fight the change I need,
foul matted dung and straw built up for years,
flawed manger, gnawed where my addictions feed,
failed whitewash painted by my shames and fears.
Lost in despair, I look to your star’s light.
When I look back, my stall is clean and right.
Orientation in the Dark
Advent was invented as a spiritual journey through a time of darkness when we watch and wait and pray in preparation for the coming of the light.
This time of year is emotionally challenging for many people under the best of circumstances. Advent 2020 is excruciating for millions more who are affected by the pandemic and the glaring economic, racial and environmental injustices that it has only made worse. The usual comforts of the season are largely unavailable to us, making the darkness feel harder.
And yet in the wisdom of our tradition, as we enter the very darkest days, Advent gives us Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent when we light the candle of Joy.
The easy and culturally popular approach to Advent is to practice denial of the darkness, focusing all season on the glittering lights and festive pleasures of Christmas. This is understandable, but it misses the central point of Advent and the transformative wisdom we need right now: joy comes not in spite of the darkness but as a result of our faithful journey through it.
The truth is that we live much of our lives in the dark. The beauty of the night appears only when our eyes have adjusted. Then we can see the stars behind the stars, and the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness does not overcome.
Seeing in the Dark
It was drizzling. The little bit of snow was melting. It was two weeks before Christmas, a dark, dreary afternoon. I was worried about people I love who are suffering from severe depression. I was feeling depressed myself. It had been the hardest and darkest of Advents.
I drove around the bend in the dirt road and our mailboxes came in view, a collection of different shapes and sizes ranging from a shiny stainless steel replica of a sugarhouse to my own green-paint-over-rust veteran of many winters.
I gasped. Someone in the neighborhood had hung beautifully arranged evergreen branches with bright red bows on the two weather-beaten posts holding up the boxes.
A smile covered my worried face like fresh snow and the song “Good King Wenceslas” sprang from the darkness within me. I tacked up a note, “Thank you, wonderful neighbors!”
The intention, I later learned, was “to share some light and hope” in a dark time. It worked. I carried that joy all the way home and through the night.
It worked for the neighbors who gave me that gift, too. Advent leads us to the wisdom that acts of love and compassion toward others give us joy as we give joy to them.
The Wisdom of Joy in the Darkest Places
The wisdom of Viktor Frankl comes to us from his suffering in Auschwitz, one of the densest darknesses of the Nazi holocaust. He wrote, “As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before….
“We were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces…. I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Ex lux in tenebris lucet’—and the light shineth in the darkness…” (Man’s Search for Meaning p59f)
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama echo Viktor Frankl in The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.
Tutu suffered with his people under the brutal violence of apartheid. His prostate cancer had returned as they were writing the book.
The Dalai Lama fled into exile as the Chinese invaded his beloved Tibet murdering many of his people and crushing their cultural and spiritual heritage. He has lived with the grief of continuing traumas for decades.
Yet both of these men shine a joyous light around them.
They credit the same wisdom that Viktor Frankl discovered in Auschwitz. One day the thought of Frankl’s wife came to him in a moment of intense suffering. He did not know that she had already died in another death camp at age 24. He knew she could be dead, but she was alive and vividly present in his mind. He wrote of that moment,
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest good to which [humanity] can aspire…. The salvation of [humanity] is through love and in love. I understood how a [person] who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss…” (p57)
The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu book on joy has a chapter entitled, “Nothing Beautiful Comes without Some Suffering.” The book has sections on fear, stress, anxiety, frustration, anger, sadness, grief, despair, adversity, illness and death. These themes may seem strange in The Book of Joy, but both men insist that the darkness not only cannot destroy joy, but it provides a path to it.
They see that love is the key, in its many dimensions. Their “Eight Pillars of Joy” include humility, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity, as well as humor, perspective and acceptance.
The third and fourth Sundays of Advent traditionally are Joy and Love. The Taoist symbol expresses their relationship to one another, as it does the relationship between darkness and light, and also, perhaps, between a mother and the child in her womb.
Advent Wisdom from the Womb
Lisa Kutolowski of Metanoia of Vermont wrote a beautiful Advent reflection on her journey through the darkness of wanting a baby but being unable to conceive. She writes, “By fully entering the pain of my unmet longing, I received the ability to more freely love my future child. I am exceedingly grateful for this time of waiting. Its fruits are the greatest gift I can imagine giving to Anna…. I am certain that more months or years of waiting would have revealed more layers of attachment and with those revelations, more gifts.”
Lisa ends with this profound insight: “It is essential we are honest about the pain of waiting. Without this honesty, we will find ways to skirt around the pain – avoiding, distracting, deflecting. This attempt to escape feeling the pain almost always transfers the pain to someone else. We seek security, wealth, or pleasure at the expense of someone else and ultimately, millions of people’s unacknowledged pain leads to entangled systems of injustice. Additionally, if we can’t look our personal pain in the face, how can we take an honest look at the grave injustices and inequities in the world? If we can’t acknowledge the pain of our personal unmet longing, how will we ever be free to hear the cry of the poor and the disinherited?”
The Darkness Is Our Teacher
Lisa’s pain became her teacher. The Dalai Lama has said that the Chinese were his greatest teachers. This can be true of all our struggles. The darkness we pass through teaches us much about light that we could not learn to see otherwise.
The Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
In that spirit, here are two Advent sonnets written from within my own darkness. I hope they lead you to compassion and lovingkindness for others and yourself, and to the joy of keeping faith with the Advent journey.
Advent’s Darkest Depths of Silence
The angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah… Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John…. Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Luke 1:13-20
Old Zechariah, tongue clamped dumb from doubt—
at least he got to watch her belly swell.
He saw just how his crisis would come out,
how he would have a greater hope to tell
than ever he had dared to think or dream.
He saw the advent that his love was bearing.
He never wondered, are things as they seem?
The angel’s word, proved, kept him from despairing.
In my tongue’s drought, when words wilt, lifeless dust,
when nothing sprouts, no swelling of gestation,
I do my temple tasks, enacting trust.
I pray, write, preach, tend souls, my called vocation,
but get no sign of dawn or worth or child,
just darkness—doubt and faith unreconciled.
Advent of the Christ Self
What was in Mary just before the light,
the voice of Gabriel, the power of God,
came filling all of her—heart, womb and sight?
This morning I am hoping she was flawed,
and not the perfect vessel others claim.
I need to think of her as sad and yearning
for something she perhaps could not yet name,
an aching emptiness where she kept turning,
searching within the lightless void inside
and feeling devastation in the loss
of what she did not find. She prayed and cried
and felt forsaken on her longing’s cross—
sometimes self-loathing, sometimes mere self-doubt
until the Christ self filled her lost self out.
copyright 2020 Thomas Cary Kinder
Advent is designed to be a path of inner and cultural transformation through darkness into light. Other spiritual traditions have parallel paths.
Finding and taking a path like Advent to inner transformation is urgent for us each because cultural transformation is now urgent for us all.
I quote Gus Speth over and over because our one hope for survival as a nation and species is that we place his wisdom at the top of our individual life goals and daily priorities:
“Many of our deepest thinkers and many of those most familiar with the scale of the challenges we face have concluded that the transitions required can be achieved only in the context of what I will call the rise of a new consciousness.” (from his book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability)
This post is a continuation of my poems and reflections on Advent. Advent’s path progresses along a series of themes. The first Sunday is hope, and the second peace. They are followed by joy and love and finally the light of transformed spiritual consciousness represented by Christ: humanity fully evolved and matured.
Jesus looked at a society that was in many ways like ours and said, “If only you had recognized the things that make for peace!” (Luke 19:42)
The Hebrew word shalom means peace in the fullest sense of harmony, wholeness and wellbeing—both peace and the conditions that make for peace. True shalom requires a mature, transformed heart and mind capable of recognizing the oneness of all people and all the earth and therefore acting with compassion and justice for all.
Advent calls us to shalom and adds to it the wisdom of Taoism:
No peace in the world without peace in the nation;
No peace in the nation without peace in the town;
No peace in the town without peace in the home;
No peace in the home without peace in the heart.
The Eastern Orthodox saint, Seraphim of Sarov, put the same principle this way: “Have peace in yourself and thousands will find salvation around you.”
How can we find the peace and things that make for peace that we urgently need? Below are three sonnets that reflect on this question.
[The words of this Advent sonnet are printed below.]
The season of Advent represents the most urgently important wisdom the Christian tradition has to teach us right now. It holds the key to the spiritual transformation that we need in order to heal our divided and damaged world.
The word “advent” means the approach or arrival of something. The season of Advent gives us metaphors to understand our current limited vision and way of being as a kind of darkness, and the more developed, mature heart and mind of Christ as a kind of light that can be born within us.
The season of Advent is about preparing to receive this transformation by opening our hearts and minds to the light as widely and purely as we can so that it will fill us and shine through us into the world.
We can seek and find the light in nature, or in art, or in the vulnerable, hurting or oppressed people and earth that we turn to with compassion and a helping hand, but in order to find light outside of ourselves we need to prepare to find it within ourselves. Continue reading
Do not fret. Peace. Let not your heart be troubled; neither let it be afraid. Here is why these scriptural commandments are so important today and for the future world.
“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” Isaiah 30:15
The soul of the nation had fallen into rampant self-interest, materialism and greed. It neglected and oppressed the poor. It strayed from the sacred way of love of neighbor and love of the ways of spiritual wisdom. Its politics had become corrupt, its alliances unholy.
The prophet Isaiah warned the nation, because “you put your trust in oppression and deceit, and rely on them…this iniquity shall become for you like a break in a high wall, bulging out, and about to collapse, whose crash comes suddenly, in an instant.”
Isaiah’s words have spoken to many nations over the past 2,500 years, not just because of their warning but even more importantly because they show that there is a path out of that imminent destruction.
The sacred way of the Spirit that created the earth and all life is merciful. It is infinitely forgiving of those who turn back to its ways while there is still hope of recovery.
This proved true for Isaiah’s society and for others throughout the ages. We need to listen and follow its wisdom today: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quiet and in trust shall be your strength.”
The path back begins in returning to where the Spirit lives within us all, the golden room of the heart’s true core, and resting there. Strength comes in quieting the ego’s selfish, agitated human thoughts and listening instead for the wisdom that arises from the Spirit through our silence and deep trust.
As I write this, America is voting for its President and the composition of Congress and state governments. The outcome will shape our future in many ways.
But whatever the outcome, we still will have the same enormous challenges that threaten our democracy and the survival of the human race and all living species. We still will have brutal social, economic and environmental injustices that must be changed and healing that must be undertaken.
The wisdom of Isaiah says that we need more than just the right politicians in office. No matter who is in these positions of power, we need a shift of cultural consciousness, a change of heart and mind that can come only one way—in returning and rest, in quietness and trust.
We need to break the obsessive, compulsive, white-knuckled, gut-clenched mode of being that many of us have developed over the past several years of political turmoil and several months of intense election anxiety.
We need to break the addictions of the ego to anything less than the Spirit’s ways of right living.
Whoever is in power, we need to be the change we wish to see in the world from our deepest heart outward, starting today. We can live from that calm refuge even here in the agony of fearful uncertainty.
We have a new world to create, the fulfillment of the ancient prophets’ dream. We need rested, strong and quiet souls that are trusting in the Spirit’s guidance and power in order to fulfill that hope.
So take a deep breath. Take a break from the news. Go outside and notice the beauty. Connect with a dear friend. Read some eternal spiritual wisdom. Listen to music that connects you to your depths. Best of all, meditate or pray. Return. Rest. Quiet. Trust. That is where the path begins to the strength we need to save and renew our world.
William Sloane Coffin was a hero with a great soul, which is one definition of a saint. His courage, hope and faith led him to risk his life as a Freedom Rider. They led him to jail in protests for justice and peace. They engaged him in one struggle after another in his “lover’s quarrel” with his nation.
This photograph shows him being a hero of another kind. It was taken in the year after his son, Alex, died in a car accident. Bill described coming into the United Church of Strafford in paralyzing grief and playing music until he had subdued the inner struggle enough to return to his outer struggles.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a similar hero with a great soul. He wrote in his book The Strength to Love, “A positive religious faith does not offer an illusion that we shall be exempt from pain and suffering, nor does it imbue us with the idea that life is a drama of unalloyed comfort and untroubled ease. Rather, it instills us with the inner equilibrium needed to face strains, burdens, and fears that inevitably come.” (from Chapter IV)
We need that inner equilibrium today because we are living in a fearful time that asks us all to be heroes with great souls. Human greed has raged out of control while human technology has gained planet-destroying power. Social injustice, economic inequity and environmental destruction have brought us to the brink of an inevitable revolution.
On the one hand, the side of greed with its ego-driven fight for its self-interest cannot continue without a revolution against democracy and nature. On the other hand, it will take what King called “a revolution of values,” a change of cultural consciousness, in order to reverse humanity’s self-destructive direction.
It will take heroes with great souls to change our consciousness, not only because we are up against the most powerful corporate and media empires the earth has ever seen, but also because the source of the problem—the fearful, selfish ego—is in us all.
We all are tempted by self-interest. It takes a hero to win that inner struggle enough to love a neighbor as our self.
It takes a hero to follow the Golden Rule and to care for the earth as our common home.
It takes a hero with a great soul to live as an altruistic citizen of a democratic republic, which is why John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” He said unregulated avarice and ambition “would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net.” As we are seeing every day.
How can we be the heroes and great souls that America and the earth require?
Bill Coffin said in a Riverside sermon, “Human unity is not something we are called on to create — only something we are called on to recognize.”
This contains the key wisdom we need. King put it this way: “The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history. He who works against community is working against the whole of creation.”
The Holy Spirit is the name we give to the impulse that moved the first single cells of life on earth to form communities with other cells. Four billion years later, that same Spirit is at work trying to overcome the ego-driven forces that divide human from human.
We do not have to create our unity with one another and with the earth, we have only to look deeply into the reality of nature and our own heart and find there the Spirit that created the universe, and align our values with its values, and take its will as our will, and use its power as our power.
This is why Mahatma Gandhi led his followers to spend two hours in meditation, prayer and the singing of hymns every day. They were emptying themselves of the ego’s control and opening to the Spirit’s guidance.
It is what made them the heroes, great souls and saints they had to be in order to change the consciousness of their culture and create a nonviolent movement that could overcome the most powerful Empire in the world.
Which is exactly what we need to do today.
We need to free ourselves from whatever paralyzes us or keeps us stuck. We need to open to the Spirit’s inner transformation so we can transform the world.
That is what the photographer Jon Gilbert Fox caught William Sloane Coffin doing at the piano in the Strafford sanctuary that summer day.
It is what we each are doing when we play music or meditate or pray or walk in nature or have a deep heart to heart conversation with a wise friend. We are listening, changing our consciousness, recognizing more clearly the sacred way, connecting more deeply to the Spirit’s guidance and power. We are becoming the heroes, great souls and saints this time requires.
[The words of this sonnet about Grace Paley are printed below. It is closely connected to another poem and reflection on this site, “In the Shadow of Absence” that you can see by clicking here. It also relates to a recent sermon, “My Feets Is Tired but My Soul Is Rested” that you can see here.]
All Saints Day approaches. One way to define saint is as a hero who also is a great soul. This poem is about Grace Paley who would have laughed at being called a saint. She was a true hero, though, and more than once she was called a great soul. I think it honors the name “saint” to call her one.
We are at a moment of history that needs heroes and great souls. We have no time to wait for them to appear. We need to be them ourselves.
Some feel we need one great leader to emerge, but the world needs every hero and great soul it can get. We don’t have to worry about being just ordinary people. Most heroes and saints have been so only because the moment required it of them and they rose to meet its need.
What does it take to be a hero with a great soul? Continue reading
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18 KJV)
“He has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. concluding his final speech, April 3, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee
Visions of a goal ahead guide us when we are lost. They encourage us with the hope we need when we are ready to give up.
Our dreams and visions are not for ourselves alone. King received multiple death threats every day for years. He had been stabbed and his house had been bombed. Yet he kept going because he knew that the Spirit that gave him dreams and visions needed them to be shared.
King explained why when he said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”
Jesus shared the same vision of oneness. He saw that his real enemy was not Caesar or the Pharisees. His enemy was the selfish fear and greed of the individualistic ego that is incapable of seeing our true oneness. It was the life of the ego that Jesus meant when he said we have to lose our life to save our life.
Jesus said that the source of all evil is in our heart, but so is the source of all good. He saw that humanity could grow beyond the ego’s immature level of consciousness to have a heart and mind led by the Spirit within us.
This is the evolution we need to undergo now if we are to survive the crises humanity faces. The Spirit within us sees what the ego cannot—the oneness of all people and all life on earth. The Spirit leads us to have compassion and serve the common good.
Martin Luther King Jr. had an ego, but we revere him because he was willing to lose that life, he was willing to lay it down out of a greater love. Dozens of leaders made the same sacrifice, and hundreds of thousands followed them. The Spirit rose to ascendency over the ego in the 1960s nonviolent Civil Rights Movement. Individual lives were transformed and they transformed the world.
But the ego struck back in the 1970s. Continue reading
[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]
We have a task that is of the highest priority. It will take us all giving our all to accomplish it. It will also take a cultural change of consciousness, maturing to a new Enlightenment, in order to have the wisdom, commitment and courage we need.
Elections are part of the task, Friday climate strikes and Black Lives Matter protests are part of it, the Poor People’s Campaign and all the liberation movements—they are different means to reaching the same goal, a world that is livable, lovable, sustainable and worth giving our all to save.
David Attenborough has produced an extraordinary film, David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, that includes both his witness to the existential crisis that humanity has created and his vision of how we could still change course and reverse the damage and restore the stable planet that humanity has enjoyed for millennia. (You can see the film’s trailer below and find ways to watch it on YouTube or Netflix.)
His perspective is specifically focused on the biodiversity that we are rapidly destroying without which we may well become extinct, but the hopeful task he gives us is essentially the same in every crisis of injustice and abuse that we face, whether social, economic or environmental. Whatever issue concerns you most, listen to his words and see how they apply: Continue reading
Jesus said, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Teacher, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:4-5)
You know the way. You know the way to the place that Jesus was trying to help humanity reach, the realm of God on earth, a society that lives by the Golden Rule, love of neighbor and compassion for the vulnerable and oppressed.
Maybe you can’t envision how our current society could possibly get there, how big business and the super-wealthy and the governments they try to control could be transformed, or even how individual hearts could rise above the base selfishness that too often drives our thoughts, words and actions.
But Jesus is right, you do know the way, and the secret of how our society can get there is waiting within you.
The 2016 film Arrival imagines [Spoiler Alert!] that an advanced civilization visits earth with spacecraft scattered around the globe. They have the ability to see the future and realize that they are going to need human assistance in 3000 years. They have come to help humanity move to a new level of consciousness and oneness so that life on earth will survive.
An American linguist is trying to understand their message. The turning point comes when the higher beings say essentially the same thing that Jesus told his followers: you know the way. (You can watch the scene below.) Like Jesus, they have taught her a new way to see and think, a consciousness that enables her to solve intuitively the problems that are keeping humanity from evolving and becoming one.
The film reflects reality. A higher being is trying to help us do the same things. Our higher being is the Spirit of life that has taught the human race many times before how to evolve and work together as one. That Spirit desperately wants the life it has created to learn how to live sustainably and harmoniously, without hurting other lives and without destroying the life-support systems of earth.
This higher being is the Spirit that Jesus had in him, and the Spirit he said we each have in our depths. Jesus listened to the Spirit in his heart and it led him to his vocation, which was in part to teach the rest of us how to find the Spirit in our own hearts, and how to live by the guidance and power we find there.
Humanity has brought itself to the brink of its own extinction, but at the same time it has arrived at the brink of the evolutionary shift it needs in order to survive. We are learning to listen to the Spirit. Cynthia Bourgeault says in her book, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice, that we are now making a transition to a new level of consciousness, traveling an ancient path by means of an abundance of new methods in a “sudden awakening to…interiority.”
She writes, “Whether through psychotherapy, men’s work, AA, yoga, mindfulness for stress reduction, enneagram work, dream work, soul work, or a host of other modalities, contemporary men and women are awakening to the realization that life is indeed an inner journey as well as an outer one.” (p. 173)
The Life Planning movement is another in the long list of ways that we are learning to hear the higher being’s voice in our hearts. A trained Life Planner acts like a spiritual director or friend who listens empathically to help us explore and discover what the spirit is calling us to do with our life. The end result is a vision of our calling spelled out in detail. Life Planning calls that vision statement a “torch.”
We each have a place within us where we find the presence and gifts of the Spirit, a “Golden Room.” We each have a torch in that golden room that shows us the path that the Spirit is calling us to take in the next stage of our life to contribute our part to a healthy, harmonious earth.
The future of the world depends on us each turning to the light of the torch in our golden room and following where it leads.
The Spirit in Jesus speaks for the Spirit in us. It says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6) If you know that Spirit, you know the way.
Below are two videos. The first is the scene toward the end of the film Arrival where the linguist, Louise Banks, finds her torch in her golden room with the help of a “heptapod” higher being. The second is a fascinating analysis of the film’s deeper meaning.
Notes on the first video (more spoilers alert!): Louise has entered for the first time the place where the heptapods live. Their twelve spacecraft are about to be attacked by fearful human armies, and in fact one heptapod is dying because of an unauthorized attack in which it saved Louise’s life. Louise alone understands that the heptapod word translated “weapon” actually means tool or process and is not a threat. Louise has come to ask the higher beings to send a message to the humans at all twelve sites around the world telling them that the heptapods are on earth to help, and that humanity needs to work together.
The “weapon” turns out to be a new consciousness, a new way of being. Louise gains the heart and mind of a heptapod the way the Apostle Paul calls us to have the heart and mind of Christ. The scriptures and ancient teachings of the Christian tradition accept that our intended destiny is to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” into higher beings who create the realm of God’s love on earth, a society of oneness, justice and peace. That is our great hope and our great task.
This sonnet is a little parable about two monks, a novice and a master sage. It can be read literally, or you could see the master sage as anyone or any situation in your life that challenges you. The poem speaks to all forms of suffering that we transform into wisdom over time.
[The words of this sonnet are printed below. It relates to another sonnet on this site and its reflection, Judging at the Ox Pull.]
Greta Thunberg believes that humanity is unable to address the climate crisis because we do not yet have the level of consciousness we need to change civilization as much as we must. She puts it this way, “To get out of this climate crisis, we need a different mindset from the one that got us into it.”
The same could be said of any crisis, personal as well as global.
Greta echoes the wisdom of Albert Einstein who said, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe…. A new type of thinking is essential if [humanity] is to survive and move toward higher levels.” (New York Times – May 25 1946, p.13 – ‘Atomic Education Urged by Einstein’)
The poem “Unbroken Prayer” is a parable about attaining a new level of consciousness that is able to resolve and move beyond obstacles that we have not been able to overcome. On its surface it describes an evolutionary inner path that spiritual sages of all traditions have found and mapped, the contemplative path, traveled by means of meditation and mindfulness practices and spiritual friendship.
Greta has come to this “different mindset” by another path. She says, “People like me – who have Asperger’s syndrome and autism…. see through the static.”
It is urgently important that we find a path beyond the way of thinking and living that has led to the crises that now threaten to destroy the ecosystems on which all life depends and the democracies that have aspired to ever greater freedom, equality and justice.
We need the dominant culture of human civilization to evolve, and that will take millions of individuals who can “see through the static”—the static of the self as well as the static of our current culture—millions who rise like the novice in the poem to act from an enlightened heart.
The spirit of life has guided evolution over billions of years from the simplicity of the first single-celled prokaryotes to the complexity of the human mind. It doesn’t matter whether you think of that spirit as a personal God or as a set of laws—what matters is that the same sense of direction that has guided life to this moment is within us each now, and it clearly wants to point its creations in the direction of survival and ever greater life.
It is not just a higher power, it is the highest power within and around us.
The highest power in the universe wants to help us find our way through the crises and obstacles we face, so the most important thing we can do now is connect to that power and listen to its guidance. We can find the strength we need in it to enable us to serve its purpose with our every thought, act and gift.
The last words of the sonnet are “Stay there.” It means to stay connected to that power in whatever you do, to live from the new mindset it gives you, and to work from that transformed consciousness to transform the world.
When he would come across the novice praying
the master sage would prod him with his cane
and tell him they had bills that needed paying
or order him to go unplug a drain.
The novice knew that this was just a test.
Still, to be deep and yearning toward the goal,
his sacred calling, then be poked and stressed—
he felt rage surge that he could not control.
For years he suffered the indignity
of watching as his worst self would arise,
but slowly he gained equanimity,
and welcoming his weakness, he grew wise.
One day he rose within unbroken prayer.
The master said, “No, I will go. Stay there.”
copyright 2020 Thomas Cary Kinder
Staying in the light feels harder than ever right now. How can we do it? This reflection is grounded in ancient wisdom but its main metaphor comes from modern literature. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are about the struggle between darkness and light, between hate and love. In the scene below that struggle is between “patronus” and “dementor.”
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Ancient myths portray the struggle between forces of darkness and light. The metaphor has always represented the conflict between the way of hate and the way of love, the way of oppression and the way of freedom, the way of destruction and the way of harmony—the choice between what sucks the life out of our soul and what fills us with meaning and purpose.
Of course real darkness is full of blessings, and is an integral part of a whole and healthy life, and darkness and light are bound together in a beautiful way as the Taoist symbol so brilliantly portrays. We need to recognize that the classic metaphor is as limited and incomplete as it is useful and true.
The metaphor also includes some irony: the crusade of white supremacy for domination has been a force of soul-crushing darkness, and the great dark-skinned leaders for freedom like Gandhi, King and Mandela, or Diane Nash, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer—or Jesus, the Buddha and Mohammed—have been among the most light-filled humans in all history. And yet many white Christians act with hate toward people simply because of their dark skin.
The same dominant, oppressive culture has treated nature as a threatening darkness. Instead of lovingly tending and stewarding earth as a gift of light and the source of all life, it has subdued, exploited and destroyed it, sending all species including our own to the brink of eternal darkness in extinction.
We need to see that we are part of the same struggle for light and love as those who created the earliest myths and all the liberation movements of the past.
We have tremendous diversity of roles to play, but we each need a way to keep in the light when the darkness threatens to overcome us. I find this metaphor useful, so I share it in the hope you may as well:
The Dementors We Face
Dementors are instruments of darkness that block us from the light or suck the light out of us.
J. K. Rowling describes dementors in The Prisoner of Azkaban saying, “They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them…. Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself…soul-less and evil.” (page 187)
We can find dementors lurking in the news, on social media, in certain relationships or recurring situations, at home, at school, at work, in our community—they can appear anywhere and will be different for different people.
Our dementors are not external, though, they are internal. They reside in the response we have to the world. They breed in our darkest thoughts and feelings. The Nazi death camps were designed to suck the soul out of people and render them hopeless and turn them evil, but as Viktor Frankl shows in Man’s Search for Meaning, the dementors were inside each death camp inmate, which made heroic those inmates who found within them an even greater power of light.
The Patronus: The Defense against the Dementors
J.K. Rowling defines the “patronus” as “a kind of anti-dementor—a guardian that acts as a shield between you and the dementor…. The Patronus is a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the dementor feeds upon—hope, happiness, the desire to survive.” (p 237)
A patronus harnesses the life-force of light and makes it available to humans who are trained and practiced in its magic. It comforts and guides as well as empowers—three of the qualities attributed to the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John.
A patronus is what it looks like when we are instruments of the Spirit of light flowing through us.
The Patronus Charm is the way people learn to work with this force of light and let it flow. The charm is made up of two parts—first, tools and practices; and second, the focus of our intention and attention on the light.
The equivalent for us of Harry’s wand, word and motion includes a vast array of inner resources that help people who are struggling with anxiety or depression, like Cognitive Behavior Therapy or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, each with its own set of inner tools and practices. These are more elaborate than a flick of a wand and the words, “Expecto Patronum,” but their effect is comparable.
For example, if something in the news fills you with darkness and despair, you can go into nature or sit in your most comfortable chair and look around you and notice in detail the beauty and feel the relaxation of that moment of peace, or you can examine your thinking to clear cognitive distortions that are feeding the dementor, distortions like ignoring the positive or blowing the negative out of proportion and “catastrophizing.”
Talking with a good friend or counselor can also help, or feeling solidarity with others who are with you in the light. There are many different tools and practices, and different ones work for different people.
The most important part of the Patronus Charm, though, is the focus of attention on, or complete immersion in, the light. This focus has two steps.
First, we need to turn down the volume on the dementorish thoughts and feelings. Skills like mindfulness and meditation give us the ability to keep our attention focused on the light when dementors attack. In the Christian contemplative tradition these practices include heartfulness, Centering Prayer and the Welcoming Practice among others—they are all ways to self-empty and open ourselves to transformation by a higher power of light.
The second step in J. K. Rowling’s formula is the specific light that we invoke. It is not enough to be nice or fun, it has to be a heart’s core connection to a central part of the meaning, purpose and hope of our lives. We need to focus until that light fills our heart, mind, soul and body with its power. In the film clip above it is a memory of Harry’s parents.
In Centering Prayer and the Christian mystical tradition this has a fascinating twist. The way to focus on the most powerful light is to unfocus. It is to enter into the darkness of “a cloud of forgetting and a cloud of unknowing” leaving our awareness simply open to the unseen presence of the light that shines in the darkness, the light of God. We cannot access that highest power except through our deepest, unfocused openness.
We cannot do any of this without the discipline of study and practice, but the more we master our inner patronus, the more powerful a force of light we become in the world, and the more our own life is characterized by light.
This is what the world most needs from us now.