Friday, April 27, 2012

Doors closed; doors ajar; doors opening.

    When my wife and I were in China in the late '90's, we visited a very large Buddhist temple complex--the Lingyin Temple--outside the city of Hangzhou.  Of all the pictures I took at the temple, this one remains one of my favorites.  A beautiful closed door, with sandals awaiting their owner's return.  The overall sense to me was one of serenity, but with a sense of expectation, perhaps even adventure, most likely . . . duty.
     The memory of the door, and the photo returned to me the other night while I was watching the Hallmark biopic Temple Grandin (which starred Claire Danes and earned five Emmys).  Temple Grandin is an amazing woman who has not allowed her autism to keep her from success in many fields.  She is a fierce advocate for the autistic, but also an expert in animal science (she teaches at Colorado State University).  The movie frequently makes reference to her discomfort with doors; in one scene, she avoids one store for another because the first had a pneumatic door that disturbed her.  Doors appear in her mind as she tries to make decisions, and, finally, at a critical point, she seizes the opportunity to go through a "door", recognizing that something new and wonderful lay on the other side.
      And then, within a day or so of watching the film, I ran across a quotation from one of Emily Dickinson's poems:

        THE SOUL should always stand ajar.
          That if the heaven inquire,
       He will not be obliged to wait,
          Or shy of troubling her.*

And that reminded me of the passage from the New Testament book of Revelation:  "Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me" (Rev 3.20).
       Doors closed, doors ajar, doors opening.
       Closed doors are such for a reason.  That reason may as significant as security or privacy.  Or it may be to keep the breeze from rushing through the room, scattering all of the papers on the table.  Or it may be a simple fear, or hesitancy, to engage with that which is on the other side of the door.
       Doors ajar may be such by design or neglect.  Regardless, there is potentiality (to use the more archaic language) for "weal or woe".  What is inside may escape; what is outside may intrude.
       Doors opening are an invitation.  The one inside is invited to depart and be changed by whatever is encountered.  Or the one outside may be invited in to encounter and change the host.
       I love leaving my office door open (unless I'm in conference).  I never know what adventure might walk through.  I hope that the doors of my heart and mind are equally open to encounters that will stretch them.


*Emily Dickinson, Complete Poems, IV:  Time & Eternity, 121.  (found online here:

Friday, April 20, 2012

Candles in the Wind

     Last Monday evening, I was part of a ceremony to mark the beginning of Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week here at the University of Denver.  The ceremony was simple:  a series of readings from survivors, or witnesses, of various genocidal rages:  the Holocaust, Rwanda, Cambodia, etc.  After each reading, a candle was lit.  The service began with these words:

We light candles in memory of the light of the millions of our brothers and sisters extinguished in the Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, Armenia, and too many others.  Each candle represents the light inside each person affected, and the light inside all of us requiring us to remember their stories.

As you can see from the photo above, not all of the candles remained lit.  It was windy, after all.  I was struck by the efforts we took to keep them burning--whether it was shielding them from the wind, re-lighting them from other candles, or striking yet another match.
     How hard it is to keep the light burning!
     I certainly know the experience of getting totally engaged in a project, a cause.  The flame burns hot.  I am, to use the cliché, "fired up".  Inevitably, however, time or other matters conspire to cool the intensity.  My attention wanders to the next new thing, or the most urgent emergency.
     One of the beneficial things, though, about annual remembrances is that we ARE reminded again and again of events in the past that have made us who we are.  And we may vow "Never again"* when it comes to genocides or other horrors.  Yet we turn on the news, or read the papers, and see that we have a long ways to go before we realize those goals.  Or some other world event--missile tests in North Korea or India, airplane crash in Pakistan, financial crisis in Europe--crowds out our focus.
      Phhfffphffhpfhfhf.  The winds blow, and the candle gutters.
     We learn, however, from these memorials of the steadfastness and bravery of many of those who struggled against the evils.  The winds certainly blew, but their candles were not extinguished.  Many of them were people little different than us, but they saw a hopeful, more just, future as the light to which they were drawn.  Some of them fought alone; others found strength in community.
      Those of us gathered on Monday evening found common cause, and common strength.  We did work together to keep those candles lit; we can corporately recall that evening as we struggle with the winds that would seek to vanquish the light.  And therein lay the larger "take-away" for me:  as I contend with the adversities I face, finding a community -- even if only a two-person community -- to shield and nurture the flame in the face of all the winds is critical.



*  "Never Again" is the name of the student group at DU that stands behind Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A conversation between ocean and stone

     In an interview several years ago, Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donahue recounted growing up on the west coast of Ireland:  

 . . . [I]t's the Burren region, which is limestone. And it's a bare limestone landscape. And I often think that the forms of the limestone are so abstract and aesthetic, and it is as if they were all laid down by some wild surrealistic kind of deity. So soon - being a child and coming out into that, it was waiting like a huge wild invitation to extend your imagination. And then it's right on the edge of the ocean as well, and so a conversation - an ancient conversation between the ocean and the stone going on.* 

The photo above is of that interface between ocean and stone--the place of conversation--as O'Donahue put it.  A close look at the rock reveals the impact of those long encounters:  ridges, lines and fractures in the limestone.  His image of the interaction--especially in light of the photo--as being a "conversation" caused me to think.
      How many of us would think of water striking rock as "conversation"?  The Hebrew psalmist writes of the sea "making a noise" (Ps 98. 8) or "thundering" (Ps 96.11) and the "rivers clapping their hands" (Ps 98.9).  A quick search, however, doesn't yield a reference to water "speaking" or "saying".  And wouldn't most of us see such a conversation between water and rock as rather one-way?  The water being the active participant, the stone being passive? 
      Yet, over time, the impact of the conversation between sea and stone is evident -- certainly on the rock, as both the force of the water, and the corrosive nature of the salt take their toll.  But the water absorbs minerals from its splashing.  Particles of stone remain suspended for some time in the water.  In short, both water and shoreline are changed.  It is much like any conversation between people, I believe.  That is, any encounter changes us both in some way.
      Many years ago now, I took a class in Process Philosophy (derived from the work of mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead).  Process Philosophy (and its cousin, Process Theology) assert that any encounter changes all parties to the encounter.  Sometimes the change is easily apparent; other times, the changes are only evident after a long period of time.   I often recall, at moments like this, the words of another philosopher/scientist/theologian (often associated with process thinkers), the Jesuit Tielhard de Chardin, who, in a letter to a young student, begins:

Above all, trust the slow work of God. We are, quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. . . . .   And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability - - and that it may take a very long time.** 

      We are such impatient creatures.  Immediate satisfaction/gratification is our goal.  We see it, we want it . . . NOW!  We desire it, we demand it . . . NOW!  We want our children/partners/parents to change . . .  NOW!  And we find it so difficult to let conversations proceed at the pace they require, including our conversations with the Divine, i.e., prayer.  We often treat our interactions with God as if God were a cosmic ATM -- as long as we put in the right card, and type in the right PIN, we should receive what we ask, without much delay.
      I wonder if many of our conversations with God (and others) are a lot more like that between an ocean and stone:  real change only happens gradually.  Yet, at some point in the future, we can look back and see how much we've grown.  A conversation between ocean and stone CAN take a long time!  
       Now if I only knew who is the ocean and who is the stone?



*The interview was with Krista Tippet of "On Being."  The full interview, as well as other photos, can be found   There is a wonderful gallery of photos of the Burren at

**Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier-Priest 1914-1919 (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 57.

Friday, April 6, 2012

And the daffodils stood!

     Sometime early last week I began to notice the daffodils poking their way out of the flowerbeds at home.  The snow had finally all melted and green was emerging out of the faded brown remnants of last year's growth.  New life was triumphing over death.  Last Sunday it was over 80 degrees in Denver.  "Spring was here," I thought.  "Bike commuting is a reality again!" I dreamt.   Ah, the best-laid plans .. .
       Monday dawned cool and overcast.  The forecast was for precipitation . . . including snow!  As the day wore on it kept threatening, but nothing significant.  Tuesday, however, I had to crunch through snow on the way to get the newspaper.  The daffodils were blanketed.  And, as the day wore on, the snow continued to fall.  The (what I thought were) vulnerable daffodil shoots were almost buried.  By Wednesday morning, however, the snow had begun to recede; it was gone by that afternoon.  And the daffodils stood proudly, survivors, triumphant!
       I guess there is no real surprise, then, that for many of the world's religious/spiritual traditions, this time of year is filled with celebrations of renewal, of the triumph of life over death, or freedom from bondage.  Ostara, at the Vernal Equinox in March, is the Pagan/Wiccan celebration of the reawakening of the seeds within the earth.  Zoroastrian Now Ruz, or New Year, celebrates the renewal of the world and the creation of fire.  This evening, Passover begins . . . the Jewish celebration of the departure--the liberation--of the Israelite people from bondage in Israel, and their setting-forth on their journey to the Promised Land.  For western Christians, today is Good Friday, marking the death of Jesus, and Sunday is Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus -- his triumph over death.*
       The festivals of the triumphs, the victories, at this time are not, however, one-time celebrations.  They are repeated every year.  And those who pay close attention to the broader stories they celebrate will notice, too, that the triumphs, the victories, are rarely complete.  True, the seeds are reawakened in the spring . . . only to flourish, re-seed themselves, and die.  True, the Israelites were freed from bondage . . . only to wander for forty years in the wilderness until they reached the Promised land . . .  only to struggle mightily to truly inherit it . . . and so on.  True, Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared to his followers, giving them strength . . . only for them to experience multiple cycles of persecution and calm, not just in one land but many.  It seems that the rhythm of life is rarely an increasingly upward series of success upon success, but rather more like some kind of sine wave, oscillating betweens highs and lows.
       Our holy days reiterate this with their seasonal reminders that we, too, go through many ups and downs, sowing and harvests, enslavements and liberations, deaths and rebirths.  They are all reminders of hope in times of despair.  They give us what we often desperately need.   May these coming days, then, be a time of renewed vision and hope and for you!
       For, after the snow fell, it melted.  And the daffodils stood proud!



*Eastern Christianity's observance of these same events falls next week this year.