Saturday, October 29, 2011

Outer appearances can deceive

Heading off to the costume party
It was costume party day at my children’s playgroup.  Our eldest son, four years old at the time, had decided to be a carpenter. To create his costume, we had dug into my old blue trunk. That trunk had been to university and back with me, but now served the very useful purpose of storing items for ‘dress-up’ play.

We fashioned a simple costume. My son wore a carpenter’s apron and toted a hand crafted wooden toolbox with miniature tools. On his head was an orange plastic Tonka hard hat.  We left our home pleased with his appearance, and headed off confidently to enjoy the party.

My heart sunk when we entered the room; my son's peers were spectacularly and elaborately decked out. Little boys, dressed as dinosaurs and dragons, and little girls, dressed as princesses and fairies, appeared to have sprung fully costumed from the pages of a pop-out storybook. 

Fortunately, my son was oblivious to the inadequacy of his tickle trunk costume. The children crowded around him, drawn to the costume with its miniature tools.

At some level, the children sensed that here was the genuine article, a costume that expressed character. Here was a kid who had helped create his character. In creating the costume, he had become a carpenter. There was nothing remarkable about his costume, but there was integrity in the character.

Learning from a simple carpenter
"The Carpenter" by Frances Hook

In the 1st century, in Palestine, a simple carpenter, named Jesus, appeared on the scene. He came from an obscure village and an ordinary family. Based on his position in society, there was nothing to recommend him to others. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Yet, he taught and spoke with authority; crowds hounded him, and the religious leaders feared him. 

Jesus had charisma. His character, not his costume, attracted people. His charisma came from his sense of identity as God’s beloved. His self-esteem was rooted in being loved and in loving others. Love informed his words and deeds.

Jesus knew that the people of his time were impressed with good looks, fine clothes, and lavish homes. People viewed these outward externals of success as a reward from God for being good. So Jesus warned his disciples of the deceptive nature of outward appearances. Referring to the scribes, Jesus noted that this group of men liked to parade in long robes and to be greeted obsequiously. They said long prayers “for the sake of appearance” but their hearts were hardened towards the poor and suffering (Mark 12:38-40). 

Cars, homes and clothes may become our costumes
We are not very different from the people of Jesus’s time. We are impressed with appearances. Popular culture bombards us with images of narcissism. The advertising, fashion, and entertainment industries entice us to costume ourselves in imitation of the wealthy and glamorous. Our cars, homes, and clothes may become our costumes; they may project an image not of who we are, but of who we want to be.   We let the externals create our character.

The external things are like spectacular costumes worn to the party. They may be masks that conceal our sense of inadequacy or our feelings of exclusion. Our costumes may be glorious to look upon while our character is bruised or lacking in substance.

Peeling back the costume
Meister Eckhart, a medieval mystic, spoke about the spirituality of detachment. This is the stripping away of possessions, attitudes and sometimes relationships until we have nothing. In nothingness, we discover who we truly are, and we become one with God.

Jesus invited all people to discover the worth of their person. The spiritual life invites us to shed the layers of our costumes and to peel back the mask that conceals our true self. To do so is to undertake the risky journey of discovering the genuine article of our being.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Beware of pests in the vineyard

A pest in the vineyard
Grape Gathering by Xedos4
My father makes wine, and we often help with the wine making process. One year, we decided that we could improve the wine if we were to pluck the stems from the grape bunches before crushing the grapes. Since we had copious amounts of grapes, plucking the stems was a time intensive, laborious task, but it was well worth the effort. That year’s vintage was outstanding.

I was gratified to learn at a recent tutored wine tasting that some limited edition vintages are created from grapes that are both hand picked and de-stemmed. Even prior to harvest, the vines for these more expensive wines are trellised in a special way to promote the production of high quality fruit.

Still, things can go wrong. Pests can attack the viability of the crop. The louse, for example, attacks the roots. It’s a sneaky little pest whose presence can go undetected for a long time. It is only when the leaves of the vines begin to die prematurely that the disease become obvious. By then, it may be too late to save the vines and the rootstock.

Growers sometimes plant rose bushes in the vineyard among their vines. The rose bush is a natural alarm system alerting growers to pests. If the rose bush looks sick, the grower can assess the problem and take action to save the vines.

Biblical image of the vineyard
The vineyard is a classical Biblical image. In the Hebrew Bible, the prophets used it to describe the relationship of God and the nation of ancient Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus compares himself to the vine. He is the healthy vine; his disciples are the branches. Separated from the vine, the branches lose their vitality. They wither and die.

The images of the vineyard, and of the vine and branches have profound implications for human spirituality. They are images that speak of the human cycle of goodness and sin from which no person or group is exempt. Individuals and groups of individuals, including religious institutions, are at various times, both sinner and saint.

The spiritual rose bush - an interior alarm 
Each one of us has a spiritual rose bush, an inner sense of disquiet that alerts us to a pest in the vineyard of our soul. Sometimes we heed that sense of uneasiness. Sometimes, we ignore it. We may have become so accustomed to it that we no longer even notice the alarm bell ringing.

The first spiritual rose bush is the emerging and developing conscience. Those little pangs of conscience that bothered us as children were indicators of something amiss in our behavior. Parental disapproval and feelings of guilt, remorse or regret prompted us to correct our mistakes.

Wine Taster by Luigi Diamanti
With maturity, the focus of our disquiet changes. We are more reflective and self-aware. When we recognize our inner alarms and act on them, we are like vintners striving to produce a fine wine. We are strengthening our best characteristics, and plucking away at our deficiencies. We are de-stemming that which makes the wine of our life bitter.

As we eradicate one pest from the vineyard, another may appear. When we reflect on our life, we will likely be able to name a number of pests that have threatened the fruit of our branches.

Presently, my spiritual alarm is a feeling of a generalized dissatisfaction with my life, and it always surfaces when I become focused on my self. My ego becomes that sneaky little pest, subtly worming its way into my consciousness, and draining me of vitality.

When I feel dissatisfied for any length of time, I know I need to rebuild the trellis that supports spiritual growth. Prayer, attentiveness to scripture, communal worship, and acts of kindness help to restore me and to create optimal conditions for producing good fruit.

The images of the vineyard and the vine have something to teach all of us. We need to carefully tend our spirituality. When we ignore the spiritual part of our inner being, we begin to suffer some kind of disconnection from our self, from others, from creation, and from the divine. We produce low quality fruit and we end up with lousy wine.

Photo Credits:
"Grapes" by Xedos4:  Courtesy of Free Digital Photos
"Wine Taster" by Luigi Diamanti: Courtesy of Free Digital Photos

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Finding God in the ordinary

Was it coincidence? Or, was grace breaking through my daily tasks?

A good start to the day
"Vineyard" by Stuart Miles
The morning’s work on my blog had gone reasonably well. I was commenting on a passage from the Gospel of Matthew (21.28-32) where Jesus is speaking to the chief priests and elders of the Jewish people. He tells them a story about two sons. The father asks each son to go work in the vineyard. The first son says “No”, but then reconsiders and goes. The second son says “Yes”, but does not follow through. Jesus asks, “Which of the two did the will of the father?” The answer is obvious, and the religious leaders get it right.

Even still, Jesus has some harsh words for this group. Essentially, he compares them to the second son. He tells them that the tax collectors and prostitutes, people who are public sinners, are closer to heaven than they are.

The tax collectors and sinners have contrite hearts. They know that their attempts at being holy are woefully inadequate, but still they search for God in their life. They are like the first son who at first refused to do the will of his father, but eventually sets out to please him.

They are layers of meaning to the story, but I was noodling on the idea that the religious leaders were imposters. They had turned God into a set of rules and regulations to be followed. They had become self-satisfied and complacent about their spiritual state. God had ceased to be a living presence for them. The religious leaders were posers.

In the afternoon, I confidently sat down to pen my column. Several frustrated hours later, I was feeling like an imposter myself, an ordinary woman masquerading as a religion columnist. 

“Give it a rest,” I thought, “Bake some cookies.”
"Chocolate Chip Cookies" by Grant Cochrane

I was sort of listening to the radio program, but mostly I was thinking about my column when I heard something that demanded my full attention.

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” said the voice on the radio. The comment, at that particular point in time, expressed my sentiments precisely.  A discussion on feelings of inadequacy ensued. Many people, despite their competence, expect to be discovered as frauds. The host actually used the word “imposter”.

That word, “imposter”, had been crashing into my consciousness all day. Were the connections between my reflection in the morning, my feelings of frustration in the afternoon, and the topic of this radio show trying to teach me something? 

A new column began to take shape.

Mysticism of ordinary life
In the midst of the commonplace activity of baking cookies, my mind and heart opened to the presence of God.  The little coincidences, all based around the word “imposter”, were a small grace, an exclamation mark in the day reminding me that we can find God in routine tasks.

This is what the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner referred to as the mysticism of ordinary life.  This is not the traditional concept of Christian mysticism, where union with God is a privileged experience for a very few holy men and women. It is not the dramatic mysticism of ecstatic trances, visions, or spectacular phenomena.  

The mysticism of ordinary life finds God in daily life.  As Rahner expressed it in one of his prayers, “If there can ever be a way for me to you, then it leads through my daily drudge…I must also be able to find you in everything.”
Link to Rahner's spiritual writings. The Daily Drudge begins on page 45.

Responding faithfully to the presence of God in everything is not easy. Like the tax collectors and sinners, we sometimes find ourselves saying “no” to God.  Being always conscious of the presence of  God, who is ever present to us, is not easy. Like the chief priests and elders, we sometimes find ourselves forgetting God. We become wrapped up in ‘doing,’ instead of being in relationship with God.

Coincidence inspired insight
The connections around the word “imposter” that day may not have been divine intervention, but those connections certainly helped me to see that God was sharing life with me. The connections inspired insight.

Through the ordinary activity of baking cookies, I realized that God had been present throughout my day. Although I considered myself to be working in the vineyard, I was a little bit like the religious leaders. I had forgotten to be present to God.