We Are The Point

If you are like me, you often find yourself in a hurry to get someplace; and it is always someplace other than where you are. When you are at point A you need to get to point B, and when you are at point B you need to get back to point A. If only I could already be at point A at the same time that I need to be there, why can’t that happen?! And all the while you really wish you could just be at point C, that is where you really want to be!

Then sometimes I think, wouldn’t it be great if we could just trade lives for a little while? I’ll stay at point A, where you need to go, and you can stay at point B, where I need to go, and we all can save ourselves a whole lot of time and trouble.

This is the problem isn’t it? We are all so busy going here and there, and in such a hurry to get this way and that—we’re missing the point! And then we get frustrated, and maybe overwhelmed and we throw up our hands and say, “what’s the point”?! And then this leads many of us into all sorts of problematic and destructive behaviors, and this is my point.

Modern life is nuts. We can’t keep up with our own lives; things are so ‘convenient’ that everything has become inconvenient. We’re always late, we’re always impatient, we’re always hopeful that the next ‘G’ will make everything alright again. (If you don’t know what that means, God bless you, stop reading this now and continue to enjoy your life lived at a normal speed.) We had 3G, and now 4G, and 5G is on its way, and I want to say, “G-whiz can’t they just leave it alone for a little while?!”

What might we do, if our lives didn’t constantly feel as if we were being tailgated by the entire world, all the time? Go faster, get out of the way, or get run over.

Perhaps we’d read a book (that is an old-fashioned Kindle, made with paper, that smells like history), or perhaps we’d sit down and converse with a real person (that’s someone like you, who hopefully doesn’t smell too much like history). Hopefully, we could rediscover our humanity.

Is there a forgotten friend you’d like to visit, or a loved-one you haven’t seen in a while? I know there are lonely people out there who need someone to talk with, and someone to listen. Perhaps you are that lonely person too. In our rush to get someplace, we may have left ourselves behind—and lost ourselves along the way.

And this, finally, is my point: by taking the time to encounter another person, we will also encounter ourselves, and this encounter can put the ‘human’ back into humanity. We become less robotic and more alive.

Specifically, I want to encourage encounters with those on the margins of our society. I want to encourage visits with people in nursing homes, and assisted living environments, or visits with those who suffer from illness or chronic pain, and are unable to get out of their homes. Perhaps you don’t know any of these people, but you will if you go, and in time, these strangers will become loved-ones, and they will become dear to you.

“Hold on a second,” I hear you saying, “I don’t have time for this. That nursing home is point ‘D’, and I only go between A and B, while dreaming about C. Also…those places are so depressing…and people there are dying, or even dead. I want no part of that, thank you.”

Now I must admit something to you, I’m afraid of death. I don’t like it. I don’t like it when other people die and I especially don’t like it when I die. I also don’t like being reminded of death, or that I’m going to die. These are powerful and good reasons to avoid places like nursing homes. I often pray I won’t end up in one, and if I do someday, I expect I will be dragged into it against my will, so why would I voluntarily go into one?

Honestly? For love of others. We all have it, but sometimes it takes a lot of effort and courage to dredge it up. Fear gets in the way. Some fears are helpful, they can protect us, but many other fears pretend to protect us, but instead all they are really doing is imprisoning us, and isolating us from each other, and alienating us from our own humanity. I believe we were made to love one another courageously, and this is what makes us human.

I will go further and say that giving love is what makes us mature, no longer like little children afraid of shadows. So, I convince myself to finally put on my ‘big-boy pants’ and ignore the shadow of death, trusting in the power of love instead, and I enter a nursing home, and ask a nurse does she know who would like a visitor today? Who is in need of someone to talk with? Who can’t get out of their room, or possibly even out of their bed? Who is lonely? Who has been crying because nobody has come to see them? Who is forgetting that they are a person with dignity, and meaning and value? Who is convinced that they have no reason to live? Who doesn’t think they matter anymore?

She points me to a room down the hall and to the left. I walk in and meet my new friend, my new ‘beloved’ who I have never known before this moment.  It is a little uncomfortable at first…what to talk about? But nearly everyone likes to talk about themselves, so I ask questions about their life, their memories, special events, special people; so many, many topics to open and delve into. And if I genuinely dedicate myself to this other person, surprisingly, time begins to stand still a little bit. Life slows down to a natural pace, I can catch my breath again, and I feel human and alive.

We smile together, and we laugh together. We have nowhere else to go; the only place we need to be is here, and the only time we need is now. For the moment there are no other ‘points’ to get to, the only point is what is happening between us.

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~FS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loving Dogs & Music

Why do I love my dogs so much? Apart from the obvious facts that they are both incredibly cute and funny. Also, the fact that they are dogs, with all of the attendant well-known and time-tested traits which make them man’s best friend: loyalty, unconditional love, patience, gentleness, trust, etc.

And why do we sometimes have more difficulty loving other people as much as we love our dogs? Perhaps because people don’t practice these time-tested traits as frequently, or as consistently, as do our canine friends?

But I think the answer also lies hidden deep within our own hearts, not entirely dependent upon our puppies’ loyalty, nor upon the virtues or failings of our fellow humans. I propose, however, that the answer is hidden within the mysteries of silence and of music.

Think back upon your own life—when were you most happy, most alive, most joyful and at peace with yourself and with the world around you? If you are at all like me, I would guess that it was a time in which you forgot yourself (at least to some extent), and when you were engrossed in an activity which took you beyond yourself in some way. Perhaps you were playing a sport, as a member of a team, serving an organization or another person, or dedicated to a craft or art, or some other kind of discipline; or perhaps you were on a walk in the woods, in the mountains, or on the beach…

When I’m in the surf I feel an exhilaration sometimes bordering on bliss; my senses are heightened and I am attuned: I experience a hush, a quieting of my mind, and a simultaneous widening of my perception. I am as one who feels the waves, tastes the salt, smells the sunlight—and lives hearing the heartbeat of the earth, and seeing the music of the spheres.  My entire being lifted and lowering, rocked like a baby, quiet and silent, listening only to the voice of my mother; my everything focused solely, intently upon the meaning of another.

It can be the same with my dogs—they do not speak with words I can understand yet still, when I quiet my mind and listen to them with my being, I can perceive them. In our shared silence, when I look into their eyes and they look into mine, we can experience the truth of one another. I must admit that it can oftentimes be easier to do this with my dogs than with another person because I am already at ease, free of pretensions with nothing to prove, vulnerable and humble before my dogs.

In other words, I am at rest—I am still and silent within myself—and because of this I am perceptive to those around me. Within my silence I can hear their music. It is true, I believe, that each of us has a signature song—all creatures made with a unique melody that is their trademark; but in order to hear the music of another, we must quiet the noise within ourselves.

True love, a love that is meaningful and giving, and not merely selfish, is born out of truly knowing the one whom we are loving, and knowing is born from silence.

I had a startling experience with a friend the other day because I thought that I knew him. Yet, as our meeting unfolded, I discovered I only truly knew him in part, and his song was much more profound than I had previously understood.  I was tempted to shut out this new information about my friend, so as to maintain my caricature of him, so that I could continue to live within the safe confines of my own prejudices, so that I could interact with him in just the way I am comfortable, so that I could maintain my control; but instead, I risked the silencing of my prejudices and entering the silence of the unknown, that space of truth and reality that exists between us, if we are so bold as to enter.

This friend of mine loves music, he sings on the street to earn extra money. Often when I visit him, I find him practicing his craft, rehearsing songs, working to expand his vocal range. He might spend several hours each day rehearsing, pouring himself into his music. I’ve asked him what it is about singing that he likes so much and he says it keeps him from falling; the discipline keeps him from succumbing to drugs and alcohol. He lives in a small camper, a shell attached to the back of an old Ford F-250, and living like this, in the cold, so close to the elements, it is easy to give up and turn to things to ease or dull the pain. But singing keeps him focused and protects him from this.

He has had an amazing and wild life, something to fill volumes. Over the years that I’ve known him I’ve learned a great deal about his childhood in Europe, his career as a professional bicycle racer and as a business owner. I’ve learned the facts of his life traumas—from the months he spent in an iron lung after having been run over by a motorcycle as a child, to the abuse from and fights with an alcoholic father, to the suicide of a beloved sister, to the years alone as a runaway in Germany.

I was a good listener to all of this, silencing my own voice to hear his, but the songs each of us carry within us are so deep and wide, far surpassing the mere facts of our past. We are not merely a simple melody but rather a symphony, with a multitude of instruments playing within us—harmonious and discordant—rhythmic and syncopated, with themes and variations, movements following upon further movements…

He sang for me. Often when we met he would share what he was working on, showing me the lyrics to some song from Cold Play, or Journey, or Jane’s Addiction for instance, that had a vocal part which interested him. Then he would sing through the song, stopping to explain what he thought was the key to a particular line, or how Chris Martin or Steve Perry might have achieved their effects.

This time as he sang through a song he turned the lyrics so I could read them and motioned for me to sing along. I sang a little of “Patiently” by Journey. I like to sing, but I felt self-conscious standing in the open doorway of his camper, on the side of the street singing with him. But I saw the joy in his eyes as we sang together—he smiled and nodded his head, encouraging me to continue along. I smiled in return and kept singing.

We sounded pretty good together. I was startled by the blend of our voices and how pleasing it was. Next he pulled out the lyrics to “Life in A Northern Town” by Dream Academy. I was perplexed because my role with him had suddenly become uncertain. I had thought of myself as simply an interested friend, though somewhat detached, and now he was inviting me into his most sacred activities, no longer detached, but intimate. We were making music together. I was afraid. As we sang this next song, I wondered what others might be thinking of me, and what he might be thinking. I felt suddenly vulnerable and exposed but I kept singing, resisting the urge to stop in order to return to the status quo.

And then, as we continued to sing “Life in A Northern Town” together I felt a shift and I understood suddenly that though I knew all the facts about this man, I hadn’t known him at all. Singing revealed more about him, about me, and about us than all of our previous talking had shown me. In these moments together, sharing this song, making mistakes and giggling about them as we sang, I perceived something deep and intangible, difficult to articulate, yet existentially powerful. I felt love, for him, for us, and simply for love’s own sake; love let loose and freed.

What must we do to truly love? The answer isn’t simply mathematical, nor is it a reaction of chemicals, but it is more alchemical, because it involves a transformation that is somewhat magical. Music perceived through silence can yield love. The essential truth within each element of creation, the music of our souls, the truth of our being, can be heard through the stillness of our heart, by the silencing of our restless mind, and the silencing of our fears. I believe that love for each other, like love for our dogs, is much easier and closer than it may appear to us at first.

Love is natural, the most natural and elemental aspect in all of creation; it surrounds us and permeates us. Yet we keep ourselves aloof from love. We need courage to enter the silence of ourselves, and we need trust to perceive the music of others. It may be easier to access courage and trust while in the presence of our dogs because they are loyal and trustworthy; though it can be riskier to extend ourselves to other people in this same way, the reward of doing so is a life filled with love.

~FS

 

The Spare Room

There are many good reasons not to allow another—a “stranger”—to move into ones spare bedroom. The reasons are obvious. Axiomatic. We don’t need to convince ourselves of these things, so self-evident, do we? Then why am I up in the middle of the night pondering this very thing—my conscience troubled by that empty, spare room upstairs—by that individual whom I know could benefit so much through its use; there is a need, and there is a solution, so simply available.

But I like my space…I can often be generous with my money, sometimes even with my time, but my privacy? We must draw the line someplace, can’t we?! Come on now… Remember that time several years ago…?

I’ll let you in on a little secret. We once let an older lady stay with us for a few days. She slept on the futon in the living room (we didn’t have a spare room at the time). True, she had some mental problems, she was certain the government was spying on her, and that they had used her for medical experiments numerous times since her childhood. Apparently they were still after her and she was frightened. These things were untrue, of course, but her fear was real. So she stayed with us for several days and we looked after her.

She couldn’t take care of herself. She was incontinent, and urinated on our futon. There was simply too much liquid, so we had to throw it away. But before that, she started a fire on the stovetop. Had not Grace, my first wife, fortunately been home at the time, and able to put out the fire before it grew, we very likely would have lost the house, and this dear lady her life. As Grace battled the flames, she slept soundly upon the futon unaware of the fire she had started by leaving a bag of groceries on the burner, and then turning it on…and then going to sleep.

This is a convincing anecdote I think, good enough to justify my misgivings about the spare room upstairs. I believe I can go back to sleep now, at ease, my conscience mollified by good common sense and experience. I will return to bed now and sleep; but somehow I know this matter is far from settled within me.

Conscience can be polite—ignore it—and it will often go away; neglect it, and it might grow quiet. In fact, sometimes even eating a lot will make it shut up, at least for a time, at least until we eat again—but be sure to eat a lot, so as to shove conscience far down—the weight of food can overwhelm it. However, conscience too can be aggressive, needling us, refusing to stay down. Rising up again like heartburn.

Our spare room—there it was the next morning as I walked out our bedroom door. As I turned to descend the stairs, I glanced to my left and through its open doorway: a nice little room with a queen-sized bed, a nightstand, a chair and low coffee-table. It is a very comfortable room, with a window looking out onto the tree-filled lot behind ours, quiet, with a view of the local fauna: owls, deer, raccoon, and small birds of all sorts. It would be the perfect place for him to stay—it even has a full bathroom adjacent to it! Perfect!

This perfect solution has been dancing around in my head for months. “Dancing” isn’t quite the right word for it, perhaps too playful a word, maybe “jostling” is more appropriate. No, I’m looking for a word that denotes more struggle, and difficulty, and angst—clashed! This perfect solution has clashed against my desire for solitude, and my need, real or imagined, to maintain my sanctuary of personal space: my home, my castle, my oasis, a port in the storm. In this crazy world there is no place like home, but how might that peace be broken and altered by the presence of another? But couldn’t he likewise benefit from a “port in the storm”? Yes, perhaps much more than even I do. Our home could be a “life-saver” for him, or at least a place for him to find stability, possibly feeling the firm ground of a loving home for the first time in his life. How could I deny him this chance? I certainly would be grateful myself for this kind of consideration, were I in his position. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I have difficulty shaking this suggestion (command), which was given to help us learn to love each other a little better, a little fuller, and a little deeper.

“God loves a cheerful giver” and I am not cheerful about this idea of giving our spare room for another person’s use. Well, honestly…I am cheerful, even joyful—if I’m completely honest about it. And since I’m being completely honest: I also feel nauseous about the idea. I ponder alternatives: How could we share our home, without sharing our home? Maybe we could convert the shed into a habitable space instead, or buy an RV and he could stay in that, or maybe buy an empty lot and put up a tiny home for him, which could also be used by others in the future—that would be even better. But these ideas, when fleshed out, and after the math is done, are far too expensive for our means. The spare room, on the other hand, costs us nothing but our privacy (and a little electricity and water). These are a small price to pay. The benefit for him far outweighing the cost to us. And, of course, giving always has a surprise benefit and ‘payoff’ for the giver; so I’m sure, in the end, we’d be happy we did it. Plus, there is always a thrill involved with any act of selflessness; that wild abandon of throwing caution to the wind! Still, oh…my privacy!!

Our spare room is not just a spare room, we also use it to store things which have no other place, we do our ironing in there, my wife has her sewing machine set up there, and in the summer, when our bedroom gets too hot and stuffy, since it is at the front of the house facing south, when it is too hard to sleep in our room, she sleeps in the cool and quiet of this spare bedroom; also to find escape away from the noise of the neighbors, who we hear through our open windows at the front of the house. It is also a guest room—we’ve had sisters, nieces, and brothers-in-law visit and stay with us using that room. How could we do any of these things, any longer, if we invited a visitor to move into that room and live there?

It is not only a spare room, nor even a simple guest room, but it has also become a fulcrum for my thoughts and feelings about how to show love towards my “neighbor”, and the boundaries and limitations of my love. For every good reason I can assert for not sharing this room with our “neighbor”, our friend in need, I can easily find a counterargument in favor of sharing it with him, when argued with empathy and kindness. If I argue simply from my point of view then it becomes rather easy: I need my privacy; I like living with my wife and two dogs and don’t want to share our home with anyone else; I need our home to be a sanctuary so that I can be refreshed and recharged and able to face the world again; I want to walk around without any clothes on if I want to (I don’t often do this, but I could); I want to be silly and say silly things to our dogs and even sing made-up songs to them without worrying about looking silly. All of this is fairly reasonable. But when I argue from his point of view I feel a little bit petty: he has no family and no friends in this area, he is very lonely, and he is a very social person in need of people to interact with on a daily basis; a family of sorts could be a great benefit to him; he has numerous physical challenges which make life quite difficult for him and he could use some help; his job doesn’t pay enough for him to afford to live in a healthy environment, settling for bad situations due to economics, and he has some circumstances which make getting a better job difficult; he could save money by staying with us and prepare for a better future. He could thrive and grow in a nurturing environment such as we can provide for him. On the other hand, this whole enterprise could blow up in our faces, and nobody may be better off for the experiment. There are no guarantees. But is love ever poorly spent? Even if it costs us everything?

I suppose it depends on how you look at it. I cursed when we had to throw away our futon, urine-soaked and stinking. But now, in retrospect, it is a funny story, and makes me smile. I miss that crazy lady; she was interesting. She could have burned our house down, and somebody could have lost their life. Certainly that isn’t funny. But what are we living our lives for, and who are we living them for? Are we living only for today—only for this world, and only for ourselves—or are we also living for eternal life, and for someone beyond ourselves? It depends on how we look at it—for each of us, so much depends on how we look at it.

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~FS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Visitor

I wanted to share with you, my dear friend, about a visit I had today with somebody different, or at least they seemed that way to me, at first. You may judge for yourself, of course, as to who and what he is, and what significance he has, if any, and why I should take the trouble to tell you about him.

I think you’ll be surprised, however, because he’s not who you thought he was, nor who you are thinking he might be now, as I am beginning to tell my story…his story. Well, our story I suppose, since it is a fact of life that when any two of us meet, and share space and time together, our stories intermingle—becoming one—it is impossible for this not to occur. My story becomes his, and his becomes mine, and together our story joins with your own.

He is a young man, by appearances in his early thirties, tall and thin. He wears a ski-cap, camouflage: tan, green, and darker green, tight to his head, wisps of brown hair curling out at the back. He has shaved recently, but not too recently, so his face is covered with a reddish-brown stubble not quite long enough to get a hold of with finger and thumb.

He has a service dog, a German-Shepherd, mostly dark-haired but with a little light-brown on his muzzle and on his chest. He’s a good, quiet boy, but alert. His eyes are golden brown and constantly scan his surroundings. He’s seven, with good hips for a shepherd, and he can still run ten miles easy in a day, but he’s a little slow to get up the next morning, I guess he is slowing down a bit.

The young man likes the Bible and can quote from it fairly well. He thinks perhaps he should be a pastor, or a motivational speaker, but then, he doesn’t like talking in front of large groups of people. If he had to do that he thinks he might shit himself, at least that is how he puts it. Still, he likes to share with people, and help them if he can, he likes to let them know how much God loves them. Of this fact, he is certain.

Today, he has a little sign near his feet which reads: “Hebrews 13:1-5”. This is a Bible verse of course. It is a really good and important verse, he let me know, and though many people know John 3:16, and maybe something from Revelation, this one people should know as well. I’ll tell you more about that soon, just let me share a few other things first.

He prefers one-on-one conversations, it’s easier this way, and not so intimidating. He meets a lot of people every day, but he’s lonely, his only real friend is his dog. It’s been six years since he last had a girlfriend—just to mention that in passing—although this doesn’t seem to bother him; it is just a little information to back up the fact that he’s alone. He does have one guy who lives not far from his place up in the hills, he buys that guy and his dog pizza now and then, so he guesses they are friends.

When his little baby brothers were born, his heart burst with joy and love for them. He has two little brothers, and he has many joyful memories of those little boys. But other memories of his childhood are not so joyful, and some haunt his dreams even to this day. Back in the early 1990’s, when he was a little boy himself, he had been very energetic and precocious. People no longer understood by then, that this is merely the definition of boyhood, but somehow saw it as an illness instead. (I remember my own childhood in the 1970’s when people, thankfully, still understood that high energy was just a normal trait of boyhood.) In order to manage this supposed “illness” he was put on Ritalin and Zoloft in high doses. After that he had a lot of difficulty: his parents divorced, and his mom remarried a very large and intimidating man who enjoyed beating up children. His new stepfather was 6′-6″ tall and weighed about 260 pounds and had difficulty controlling his anger. On several occasions, after his step-father beat him, he would need to be taken to the hospital to recover. He was only ten. Now, decades later, he still suffers from nightmares, horrible remembrances, and wakes from them, shaking and terrified of this very large and intimidating man.

Dear friend, I almost didn’t meet this young man today. He was standing on the sidewalk at the entrance to Lowe’s as I drove past; his back was turned to me but I happened to see the cardboard sign he held asking for help which also mentioned that he suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. I pulled over and walked back to meet him.

For months I have been wandering, in a sense—not literally—but in the depths of my soul. Let me briefly share about this, only briefly, because this is his story, not mine. I have been homeless, in the depths of my heart, estranged from God, angry at him for the death of my mother, the deaths of my brother and father, and of many others whom I love. Yet, for me, God is my only home and without daily prayer and communion with Him, I am homeless. Nevertheless, how can one pray in love to someone whom they are vehemently angry against? It is extremely difficult to love the one we are hating, though we may want to love them, yet we can’t find the ability to stop hating. But then recently it occurred to me that I had misplaced my anger, directing it to the wrong person, and I had been wrong.

Let me tell you, there was something this young man said while we visited that struck me because of its relevance to my situation, and because of the certainty with which he said it; in fact, there were several things he said, not merely one, with such conviction and personal experience that I joyfully listened to this preacher:

“I have never hated God, I’m not angry at God,” he said, “God has never hurt me, only people have hurt me.” He added, “We can’t be angry at God for this, God only loves us. I wish so much that people could understand how much God loves them. If only people knew how much they are loved I think there would be no more wars, nobody would be angry at each other, our world would be peaceful. I just want people to know how much they are loved by God. I know this by experience. I experience Jesus right beside me, I feel him and know with certainty that He exists. I suffer a lot but it is God’s plan for me and I learn from it. This is where I am supposed to be.”

He continued, “I see God easily, I understand the patterns, most people can’t see the patterns or understand them in this world, but they all point to God. I’m good at seeing patterns. I have an IQ of 142; that is supposed to be a genius they say, I am pretty smart. I was tested when I was in the mental hospital. I was there for several years when I was younger. I was also tested bi-polar which is true. My mom says that none of the things ever happened with my step-father, that he never beat me, she says I’m a liar and schizophrenic but she isn’t right, that isn’t true, they tested me for that and I’m not schizophrenic or schizoid disorder, I’m bi-polar and have Aspergers. You’ve probably noticed that I can’t look you in the eyes when we talk (which I had noticed), I have a really hard time with that and I can get nervous around people, sometimes I lose my temper also. And I have anxiety around people, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like them, I do. When I’m anxious I sometimes pull at the hairs in my mustache and I actually pull them out, so then I have to shave so that it all grows in evenly again.”

“I can’t keep a job. I’m unable to do it for more than a few weeks. I get social security though but it isn’t enough to get through the month so I stand here and get a little extra. We live in a tent northeast of here. I ride my bike and he runs alongside with me. I grew up in this area so I know the hills very well so I found a safe, quiet place to live. I buy propane for a heater and it stays nice and warm in my tent, I actually have to turn off the heater around 4am in the morning it gets so warm.”

“People think I do drugs but I don’t. Well, I do smoke pot and that helps me. But I will not do meth or heroin or anything like that. I’ve never done it and never will. I don’t want anything to do with that. Someone asks me on the street to join them and I just tell them I won’t and then I need to leave and get away from them. I don’t want it. That path is just death and hell. Those people doing that (drugs) don’t know God, they don’t feel his presence and so they don’t know the way of life.”

“I have seen hell, I’ve experienced it and I know about it. People think about hell and how unfair it is that God would put someone in that awful place forever but they don’t understand. It is outside time, it isn’t ruled by time. Like when you eat too much for Thanksgiving and then you fall asleep, you sleep for an hour, deeply, and then wake up and feel as if you had slept for an eternity. God operates like that, hell is outside of time like God. I have lucid dreams, I had one where I stood in front of a brown podium with a judge dressed all in black and someone stood beside me, I couldn’t see Him but I knew He was there and was my friend. The judge lowered his head and I knew I had lost. I turned and they opened a vault door, you know the kind that are round and solid steel like you see in movies or cartoons, they opened it and there was a volcano inside and I had to walk into it and Jesus was beside me walking with me. I didn’t want to walk into it but I couldn’t stop myself, I had to walk and we walked into it together, then there was a metal walkway, narrow, a grate, and I could see, literally, a lake of fire below me, and I could feel the heat on all of the walls, they were glowing and I could feel myself being roasted. Jesus turned to me and we looked each other in the eyes and he asked me, ‘You know this is hell don’t you?’ And I replied, ‘Yes, but that’s okay, it isn’t forever.’ And He smiled at me, just a little smile like a father would give a son who he approves of, and with that smile He said to me, ‘well done’. I woke up from that dream, ‘what the hell?’ it was terrifying, but I knew that really was Jesus with me and I was safe. I’ve known Him forever, and He has known me forever.”

The young man went on talking to me for quite some time; he talked about his life on the street, the exorbitant cost of getting his bicycle repaired, his hopes of getting into housing someday, and how people love his dog, who, sensing his opportunity, he got up from his place in the nearby groundcover, and nuzzled me for a little attention. The young man lamented that people worry and care more about his dog than about him. “He’s a dog after all! He’s just a dog and he loves living out here. I mean look at him, he’s eating a weed right now.” Truly, he seemed very pleased with himself as he rooted and dug about in the plants. “If he was to walk by a dog in a house he’d probably be like ‘Man I feel sorry for you!’ And every morning when I open up the tent he jumps out and chases a squirrel or two, does his business and loves it. But people are sad for him living on the street and they figure I deserve it. It must be my own fault. I must be doing drugs.”

He stopped talking, and looked at me briefly, and smiled one of the sweetest and simplest smiles I’ve seen, without artifice or irony, but with slightly saddened eyes; yet, I swear to you, in his eyes were a magnificent depth of peace and joy intermingled with the sadness, so that I felt for a moment that I was looking into the eyes of an angel. I couldn’t help but love him. After this brief flash he turned away from me again, characteristically, looking into the distance as he spoke.

Our visit ended after a time, and later in the day I was trying to remember which verse it was that he had written on the cardboard sign at his feet. I wanted to look it up when suddenly he texted me (I had texted him my number so we could stay in touch.) asking me to please continue to help people who are in need, and he included the verse in his text:

“Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Keep your lives free from love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

 *  *  *

~FS

Man’s Heart As The Dwelling Place of God

God created man’s heart as His own dwelling place; it is man’s purpose to find this “deep heart” and to dwell there in communion with the Lord (Psalm 64:6) (The Hidden Man of the Heart, p.1). But finding our heart and remaining there is a challenge because it is man’s habit to extend his consciousness out into the world, immersing himself in his senses, and distracting himself with passionate desires to satisfy his prideful, selfish identity.

In scripture we are told to purify ourselves and to keep our heart with all diligence so that God will meet us there, but the passions (ie. gluttony, lust, greed, sadness, apathy, anger, fear, vanity and pride) and the distractions of our mind draw us out of our heart so that we live our lives outside and not from within our hearts (p.2).

We are told by the Fathers of the Church that “when all his being (man’s) is gathered in the unity of his mind and heart, there is a third kind of movement in which he turns his whole being over to God the Father” (p.6). But until we discover and develop the ability to find and dwell in our heart, we cannot make this effort to give ourselves to God, as we are instead, essentially slaves to sin, voluntarily and involuntarily giving ourselves to our passions and not to God.

How do we find our heart? To begin, humility draw’s man back into his heart, away from the hard-hearted pride of his life, and by humility man’s heart is softened (p.6). Humility helps man recognize the vanity of his life and the foolishness of his choices, and sets him on the path back to God.

Further, in humility, as man considers the shortness of his life, and his inevitable death, this awareness of his death carries him onward into a state of mourning for his life, and this inner state of spiritual mourning is transforming and very good for him (p.8). This mindfulness of death can horrify man and cause him to seek God; it also can give clarity as to the vanity of his life and his worldly pursuits, so that he begins to desire spiritual treasures rather than earthly ones (p.21).

In his despair of physical death, man then sees his only hope in God, and he struggles within himself to find God, fighting against his passions and his mind’s distractions which come between him and true relationship with God, so that he can find God in his heart, the place God created for union with man (p.24).

The “cultivation of the heart” includes both prayer and repentance as essential activities. Prayer especially focuses our attention on God. The Church Fathers stress the importance of continual prayer with the name of Jesus so as to keep the mind ceaselessly focused on Christ, helping to free the mind from its habitual distractions (p.8). In coordination with prayer they also stress the importance of vigilance and watchfulness of our mind’s thoughts and of the activity of our passions, so that we can, in time, gain the upper hand over these things acting within us (p.65).

Repentance helps man see his reality clearly—who man truly is in relation to God—and paves the way for man’s return to God (p.9). The place of the deep heart in man is concealed by vanity (p.47). Through genuine repentance man turns his entire being back towards God, it is the mourning over his sins that allows man to turn away from them, forsaking his former life and opening his heart to God. As we bear our shame in relation to God, trusting in His love and mercy, we open to His grace and salvation (p.53). Love and trust in God grows out of an initial fear of Him; we can’t but feel a little fear if we are honest about our sin, see it clearly in the light of God’s power and justice. The writer of Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). But this is only the first step, as wisdom leads us into true love—born from an initial fear—but transforming our sinfulness into nobility, pride and vanity are conquered within us and love for God and our neighbor increases.

The Church Fathers say that “prayer is the highest and most noble activity of the human spirit” (p.69). They also state that prayer is the activity of love, and that in prayer to God for ourselves and for others we show our love for man and God. For anyone concerned with the health of others—particularly as pastors and counselors—but anyone who has begun the cultivation of their own heart in the ways described here, first and foremost we can offer ourselves as living examples to others, and then we can encourage them also to live in this way, guiding them to find their own hearts as the meeting place between themselves and God.

I wrote this a while back, as an encouragement to pray and to watch our thoughts, as we work to find our heart:

Watching and Praying

Where does your mind wander? Have you ever witnessed your consciousness extending out beyond yourself, becoming lost in the world of what you see, and what you hear, taste, touch or smell? Have you noticed? Have you watched this as it happens, been attentive to the way you lose yourself in your thoughts throughout the day?

And what happens when you pray, can you find yourself again? Have you felt your consciousness return to you when you walk alone beneath the trees, or when you meditate upon the truth of Love? What peace do you feel, when all that you’ve scattered abroad in this wide world comes back to you and rests safely again within your heart? You are yours once more…

I saw myself leave myself today; extending my thoughts to the objects of my love, reaching out with my soul, dissipating my concentration and my energy just a little bit; so I prayed with thanks to God for all things, and called upon His mercy.  As I prayed, I felt myself returning to myself, and I felt peace; and I saw more clearly the objects of my love, as they exist outside of myself, but didn’t allow myself to be drawn out of my heart by any of them. As I prayed, I could love them without strings attached; simply with freedom and in purity.

When you lose yourself, if you do, have you ever tried to make prayer your constant companion; letting the words of your prayer and the meaning beneath the words permeate you, protect you, and draw you back in again? Do you call upon God’s grace continually, or struggle towards that goal? It is a difficult habit to inculcate but one that promises to add peace to our steps.

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Archimandrite Zacharias (2013). The Hidden Man of The Heart: The Cultivation of the Heart in Orthodox Christian Anthropology. Dalton, PA: Mount Thabor Press.

~FS

Virtue as the Health of Mankind

The Fathers of the Church agree that man’s original state, prior to the Fall from grace, consisted of man—made in the image and likeness of God. Not that man is no longer, following the Fall, a being made in the image and likeness of his Creator, but prior to the Fall man lived out this reality in all of its fullness whereas after the Fall, man retains the image but essentially has lost the likeness.

In this original state, furthermore, man lived free from sin and free from illness and death. These all being a result of the Fall of Mankind. So that illness and death can be seen as a consequence of the Fall and a direct manifestation of man’s turning away from God whereas prior to this man lived naturally in a state of health, living virtuously and without the specter of death plaguing him.

The original state was that of an ideal human nature, “a synergy of Adam’s free will and of divine grace” (Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, vol.1, p.10). Man was created with the intention that he use his free will in order to attain to ever greater realms of “likeness” with his Creator, so that he might attain ever higher levels and degrees of “perfection”. This ideal human nature constituted the health of his being in soul and in body.

Man was originally oriented towards God in all of his being, and he was created to find his fulfillment only in God (Therapy, vol.1, p.10). Fulfillment in God was the original condition of man’s perfect health, and it was the content and definition of man’s state of health.

To facilitate man’s perfection, God created man with spiritual faculties which he was to use in seeking deeper and greater relationship with his Creator. He was given an intellect capable of knowing God, a free will enabling him to direct his whole being towards God, and desire and love allowing him to be united to God (vol.1, p.15). When man turned these natural faculties away from their natural aim, that of God, he lost his natural state of health along with his ability to know God.

Man’s perfect health is achieved when all of his faculties are directed and exerted with God as their goal; because this aligns with man’s nature and is the fulfillment of the faculties that God implanted naturally within man. God, as the goal of man, is not an unnatural end, but rather is the original and entire purpose and end of man.

Sin, or separation from God, consists in man turning away from Him as the goal, missing the mark as we often hear sin described as, and illness is the result—spiritual illness of course, but also emotional, mental and physical. All illness traces its origins to mankind’s turning away from God.

Healing consists in turning all of man’s faculties back towards God again (vol.1, p.11). Not that this results in the immediate healing of every disease, but it forms a basis, a foundation for mankind’s health.

Man was made perfect, but only relatively perfect; he was made with potential to attain greater perfection through the alignment of his faculties with God’s will and grace (vol.1, p.16). In this way man, as the image of God, was intended to grow in “likeness” to God by the activity of his faculties directed towards God as his end.

Man was made virtuous, but with the potential to grow in virtue. Mankind’s virtue was made in the image of God but with the capacity to develop in participation with God’s plan and in this way man would grow in God’s likeness (vol.1, p.17). Sin has separated man from God’s plan but virtue enables man to find his way back.

“Be Holy, as I am Holy” (Leviticus 20:26) and “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). God admonishes and encourages mankind to remember and to return to his original purpose and to his original health.

The Fathers of the Church describe man’s activity before the Fall, as that in which man prayed continually, he praised and glorified God ceaselessly, contemplating God always, and acting as an intermediary between the created world and uncreated God (vol.1, p.19). Mankind’s joy and delight consisted of contemplating God through the creation; man didn’t seek his satisfaction and happiness in creation alone, or apart from God, but rather by knowing God through His creation. In this constant awareness and contemplation of God, as manifested in the created world, man experienced sweetness, delight, joy and bliss (vol.1, p.20).

Though mankind as a whole is far from living this way now, after the Fall—he is still created in God’s image, and with this same purpose and potential to achieve God’s likeness. Before the Fall man lived according to the virtues and didn’t know illness (vol.1, p.21), after the Fall, man knows illness and death, but can still learn virtue again, and follow in this path to greater wholeness, even if not to perfect health again in this life.

Virtue still represents health in mankind. “What health is for the living body, virtue is with respect to the soul” (St Maximus the Confessor) (p.35). The Fall of mankind puts man in a much more difficult position, under sin and the penalty of death, however, in another sense it has changed nothing insofar as who and what mankind is and was we are made to be; mankind is still a creature created in the image and likeness of God, with the potential to act freely in accord with God’s will and His grace.

“Only by practicing the virtues, and in particular their crown—compassion—is man, made capable of the knowledge/spiritual contemplation in which the spirit, but also his other faculties, exert themselves in accordance with their nature’s goal” (p.35). Love is the ultimate health of mankind—God is love—and through selfless love, compassion, mankind can attain to health of spirit, mind and body enroute to his goal—union with God.

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Larchet, J. (2012). Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, Vol.1. Montreal: Alexander Press.

~FS

Steps To Heal Sadness & Anger

The passion of sadness develops through man’s misuse of the virtuous, godly sadness which was given to man for the purpose of repentance and to rid us of the evil within us (Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, vol.1, p.186). This passion comes about as man turns from the proper use of sadness, towards the wrong use of it, whereby he/she is overcome by emotions and thoughts detrimental to his/her health. This passion generally arises over the loss of sensual things, material goods, or by way of unfulfilled pleasures and desires (Therapy, vol.1, p.186). However, in addition, more than many other of the passions, pathological sadness also comes about through demonic activity, and can appear to come out of nowhere, inexplicably (vol.1, p.187). Since this sadness often comes about by an attachment to worldly things, an attachment to earthly life, anything that threatens this life can be a source of sadness, such as illness and of course, death (vol.1, p.188).

Another common and strong link to sadness is the related passion of anger, and this passion also is a source of sadness. Sadness often follows on the heels of anger (vol.1, p.189). Man misuses his anger by directing it outward towards others and because of this he feels sadness and isolation; he becomes alienated from others and from God.

Sadness is also man’s response to feeling himself under attack in any way that hurts his self-love, and which injures his image of himself; in this way when pride and vanity are injured man responds both with anger and also with sadness (vol.1, p.189). As these feelings develop, man will also exhibit additional symptoms, related feelings and expressions of despair, spitefulness, resentment, bitterness, rancor and impatience which he then will direct upon others. “For this reason, sadness greatly disturbs man’s relationship with his neighbor” (vol.1, pp.193-194).

As with all of the passions, the treatment for sadness is two-fold and involves turning away from the passion, as a vice, and simultaneously turning towards the associated virtue (vol.2, part 4). The healing of passions involves making the right use of the original gift that God gave to man, directing the gift in the proper direction and acting upon it in the correct way. As with other passions, the healing of sadness first requires that the person desires to be healed, because often people derive pleasure from this passion, they take delight in sadness (vol.3, p.49).

The Fathers offer many solutions or therapies for sadness, few of which are easy, particularly their recommendation to renounce carnal desires and pleasures and to cultivate a detachment from worldly things and attitudes (vol.3, p.50). The idea being that if one is indifferent to something then there can be no morbid sorrow over the loss of anything. However, at the same time as one detaches from all earthy cares one should simultaneously replace this sadness associated with the loss of everything earthly, with the virtuous sadness which arises from the realization of our spiritual poverty (vol.3, p.50). Virtuous sadness, compunction and grief at being separated from God, being deprived of spiritual goods and the negative effects of our sins help heal us of the passion of sadness (vol.3, p.55).

Also, the Fathers advise anyone afflicted with the passion of sadness to cultivate a disdain for worldly honors and glory, since the desire for these things excites our pride and vanity and this is a deep source of human sadness (vol.3, p.51). In place of seeking accolades one should foster humility by seeking abasement. And by accusing ourselves and judging ourselves, we liberate ourselves from sadness, by pulling a source of sadness (pride) out from under it (vol.3, p.53).

Since sadness alienates the sufferer and often causes them to seek isolation it is beneficial for the healing of sadness to be in the company of others; human companionship can help with healing sadness (vol.3, p.52). Additionally, the sufferer of sadness, in the company of a spiritual father, or other compassionate presence can find healing by the administration of consoling words, and by spiritual discourse which elevates, enlightens and mollifies the severity of sorrowful thoughts (vol.3, p.53).

While all of the aforementioned remedies for sadness are important and helpful, perhaps the most efficacious method for the healing of sadness is prayer. “Prayer, in all its forms, forms the main cure for sadness, no matter the latter’s source. Prayer is the antidote for sadness and discouragement,” especially prayer of the heart accompanied with vigilance and attentiveness to recognize and guard against negative or demonic thoughts (vol.3, p.54). And the one who suffers from sadness, while they pray first for themselves, they should also cultivate prayer for others, for the whole world, for out of this act of charity and love one can destroy the effects of passionate sadness (vol.3, p.71).

Closely related to sadness is the passion of anger and, like sadness, it is by the misuse of the anger that man develops this passion. God originally gave man anger to fight against sin and temptation and this was its sole purpose (vol.1, p.203). Instead, we direct our anger against one another and thereby create untold suffering. From this misdirection of our anger we develop bad moods, irritation, impatience, indignation, mockery and scoffing towards our neighbor (vol.1, p.204). We rejoice at other’s misfortunes, and become sad at the successes of those we don’t like, and this is completely backwards to how we were created to be—we take pleasure in our anger, and our pleasures become the cause of our anger; for we put pleasure ahead of loving our neighbor (vol.1, p.206).

It is our attachment to ourselves and our attachment to material resources, our self-love, our pride and vanity that cause our anger (vol.1, p.207) and then we become attached to our anger, and in time our anger overwhelms us; man begins to act like a crazy person, irrational and incapable of reasoned thought (vol.1, p.210).

Anger cuts man off from relationship with God, and corrupts our likeness to the divine image. As this occurs, the Holy Spirit retreats and man is thrust into spiritual darkness, the mind becomes incapable of contemplation (vol.1, p.214).  Anger obstructs our prayers, destroys our love for one another, and is the cause of spiritual death in man (vol.1, p.215), anger then leads man on to timidity, apathy, sadness and further pridefulness (vol.1, p.216).

Instead, anger was designed and given by God to draw man closer to Him, by directing man’s anger against anything that came between man and God—evil, temptation, sinfulness etc. In order to heal man of the passion of anger and restore the proper use and function of anger, the Fathers of the Church recommend the cultivation of humility (vol.3, p.85), and the giving of money and food to the poor (vol.3, p.83).

Acts of service, love of others, compassion and self-abasement are sure-fire ways to subvert our pride and vanity and terminate the sadness and anger that arises from our self-love; a healthy love of our neighbor and of God cures us of our unhealthy love of ourselves.

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Larchet, J. (2012). Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, Vol. 1-3. Montreal: Alexander Press.

~FS