Archive for the ‘Mysticism’ Category

Profile #1: Don and the “Bwō Cháng”

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶One thematic idea that has occurred to me was to write a series of “profiles” about people who have deeply affected me during my life, for good or ill and sometimes both. Both good and ill aptly describes the person who will be the first subject of a profile here: Donald L.  I hope you readers will find the portrait below edifying or amusing or, again, both.

* * * * * *

¶Don L. was in the same “flight” as I during our basic training at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio. Don was about the same height and build as I, a slender six feet, but he had black, slightly curly hair; while mine was sandy brown with only a cowlick to disturb the front. I wouldn’t have imagined him a cologne model, but he was at least as good-looking as I; anyway, I doubt that any young lady would have declined if he asked her to dance with him or to go out on a date. There was an intensity in him that I didn’t catch onto at first; it wasn’t as primary a feature then as it would become a couple of years later. There were about sixty of us airmen in the flight, and I had minimal contact with Don during that time; he was at one end of the barracks and I at the other. I can recall only three incidents in which he compelled my interest.
¶The first was on base orientation day, when one of our two training sergeants, S/Sgt. D. marched us to some of the facilities we might wish or need to visit: the chapel, the cleaners, the Airmen’s Club, and the bookstore. While we were in the bookstore, Don bought a German language self-study book. A few minutes later, as we stood in formation out in front of the bookstore, Sgt. D. chewed him out for buying the book; I wasn’t sure why, although I surmised it might be because WWII had ended only thirteen years previously. Then there was the conning possibility: the very next year, newspapers reported a scandal at Lackland AFB in which airmen and airwomen had been treated as “pigeons”, i.e. subjects for fleecing by some on-base businesses. However, Sgt. D. wasn’t above fleecing either; he conned us trainees out of fifty cents each to buy some super-duper shoe polish — polish that never appeared, not for me anyway.
¶The second occasion for my noticing Don in a direct way was while we happened to be walking from the cleaners on base back to the barracks. We chatted off-handedly, and he confided to me that he was a Germanophile—fond of German culture, including Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, Thomas Mann, and even Adolf Hitler. At the time, the only one of those names I recognized was Adolph Hitler. During our conversation on the Lackland road, I argued weakly with Don about the Nazis because I was ignorant about all the other Germanic figures that entranced him; but before our acquaintance was but a memory I would learn much about them from Don and my own reading.
¶The third event that brought Don closer within my orbit was when Don and I were sent to a building on the base where we and perhaps a hundred other airmen were told we were “the cream of the crop” and were to be tested to determine our language-learning abilities. Based on the results of our tests, some of us would be sent to Yale University to study Chinese, and the rest would go to Syracuse University to study Russian. The week after that, Don and I were told to go to yet another building, where we and other selected airmen spent at least a week being taught some basic Mandarin Chinese and tested. When we were finished, we received our orders to report to Yale University’s Institute of Far Eastern Languages to begin our intensive study, in November 1958. I was somewhat disappointed because I had imagined that if I went to Syracuse I would get an assignment in Europe—Parisian cafés, Pamplona bull-runs, etc. China was a very dark place, almost invisible, in mid-20th century American minds. It wasn’t until Nixon and Kissinger visited Mao Tse-Tung in 1972, that China’s colorful culture appeared in American TV, newspapers and magazines.

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A 1958-59 seminar at Yale’s Institute of Far Eastern Languages. This group is part of Don’s and my class,
but neither of us appear in the photo.

¶Since Don’s last name and my own began with the same letter, we were assigned the same dorm room along with another airman named Dale L., an airman from Pittsburgh. I didn’t like this Dale fellow at all; but the causes of our disconnect don’t fall within the purview of this profile, so I will ignore him.
¶Don and I, however, developed a strange kind of “odd-couple” relationship, sometimes a bit antagonistic but often almost brotherly. We walked around town together occasionally, but mostly had discovering conversations in our room. He related to me his fascination with Thomas Mann, suggesting that I read in particular Mann’s short story “Tonio Kröger”. He also bought an LP album of selections from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre. Those I could appreciate, but I still found his admiration for Hitler disgusting. For whatever reason—and it was not sexual—a strong affinity was developing between us, although at Yale it was still in its embryonic stage.
¶At this point, I need to introduce a Chinese term that plays a major role in my relationship with Don over the next five years: that term is “bwō cháng” (transliterated using the Yale romanization; in Wade-Giles, it is “pwō ch’áng”; in Pinyin, it is “pō cháng”). The phrase translates as “wave length”. Our class was introduced to “bwō cháng” near the end of our first eight months, when we concentrated on military terminology.
¶ Don was among those who stayed another few months (four, I believe) to learn more Chinese characters; I and several others received our “diplomas” after eight months. (I had contracted chicken pox shortly after Christmas and spent a week or two in the dispensary, so I left Yale a “straight-B” student.)
¶My initial orders indicated I was to go to the Philippines; but by the time I reached San Diego a few months later—after a brief detour to Fort Meade, Maryland, to learn the technical aspects of my assignment—I learned that, no, I was to fly in one of those old twin-engine DC-7’s to Okinawa.
¶I was assigned to the Group HQ on Kadena AFB. My duties, as I soon discovered, had little to do with the Chinese language. I was told that, because there was a surplus of Chinese linguists and no translators were needed at the group level, I was to perform clerical tasks. Initially, that meant stuffing paper burn bags with secret documents, toting them out to an incinerator, and burning them. I was disgusted by the whole bureaucratic mess and wrote a letter of protest, which got some higher-up’s attention only months later. After a few months, I was engaged in cryptanalysis work, receiving reports from the field and trying to extract usable intelligence from them.
¶But back to Don. I really thought I would never see him again, for I assumed his assignment would take him to Taiwan or South Korea. One day, however, he showed up at Kadena, although his base was a field station at the other end of the island. I can’t recall whether he first appeared in my barracks room or at the base library, where I spent a lot of my free time reading.
¶The barracks room visit, I recall, was unfortunately timed, because, although it was mid-afternoon on a Saturday, I was on my bunk near the end of a marathon sleep after a long night of wine-drinking and seeing three movies in the nearby town, Koza. I could hear one of my roommates explaining to Don how I had been asleep a long, long time. But I was still too drowsy to want to get up, so I just let Don go on his way.
¶Later, I went up to where Don was stationed, and we went to see a movie about Franz Liszt—“Song Without End” (1960)—at the station’s movie house. Liszt, as most classical music fans know, became Wagner’s father-in-law.
¶But the most memorable incident happened the day I was sitting at a table in the Kadena library reading a book. All at once I subconsciously sensed a presence nearby, and then a hand clapped me on the shoulder. A warmth extended from my shoulder all over my back: it was the strangest feeling I had ever experienced, but I have felt it several times sense when I hugged certain women, and a kind of coolness when I have hugged others. I turned and there was Don standing just behind me. Later, when I read Bertrand Russell’s account of his first meeting Joseph Conrad, I felt confirmed in my belief that two persons of the same gender can have strong affinity without its being sex-based or even inducing physical warmth. It was primarily an intellectual/spiritual connection.
¶Don and I met only a few times on the island, but, unfortunately, I don’t recall the substance of most of our conversations there, just a couple of Don’s remarks. Once, when I had brought up the subject of our odd affinity, he acknowledged it and dubbed it the “bwō ch’áng”. I liked the analogy. Another time, he said to me, “Litton, sometimes when I think about you, I positively blush.” Although I felt slightly flattered by that comment, I didn’t ask him why; it had a certain aura of potential homosexuality about it, and I knew I wasn’t designed that way, nor did I believe Don was. It might, in fact, have been love, but I didn’t think Don was aware of the difference between philia and eros; while I had been in DeMolay, where brotherly affection was cultivated.
¶While on Okinawa I bought an LP album of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, with Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. When I listened to it, in stereo, I was entranced. At least as far as Wagner was concerned, Don had influenced me positively about German culture.
¶After I had returned home and been discharged from the air force, I spent a semester at SMU and didn’t do well grade-wise. While at SMU, I read “Tonio Kröger” and the rest of Thomas Mann’s short stories as well as his novel Buddenbrooks. I wrote to Don, who had returned to his home in Seattle, asking if he could host me a brief while as I searched for a job there. After checking it out with his mother and grandfather, he sent me a positive reply. How recklessly carefree that train ride to Seattle now seems to me! I don’t mean the ride itself, but the risking myself into the unknown with very minimal resources and uncertain prospects. Maturing certainly drains one’s capacity for adventure.
¶Don met me at the train station, and we rode a bus to his grandfather’s house, a two-story structure in a block of houses set on a hill. His mother greeted me warmly, telling me that Don had informed her that I was of the same socio-economic class as they, although she didn’t express it so academically. If I recall aright, I didn’t meet his grandfather immediately and can only dredge up a vague vision of seeing him sitting in a chair in a back bedroom; perhaps he was handicapped and couldn’t move elsewhere; I don’t know. That night, I did meet Don’s sister, who also resided there; she was nearly his own age, but whether older or younger I never inquired.
¶One night, Don and I walked to a lake within the city, where we tossed some stones and talked a little about his fascination with Nazism. I asked him why he admired a racist philosophy. His replied actually shocked me: “Litton, you don’t know how much fun it is to hate!” I also asked him why he drank so much beer.
“Do you realize you are going to die?” he asked.
“I know it.”
“I know you know it, Litton, but do you realize it?”
I had never thought about the death question very deeply, and I sensed that I hadn’t enough self-awareness yet to respond, so I just let his question remain unanswered.
¶On a more positive note, one day while we were engaged in a conversation concerning some subject I cannot recall, Don remarked, “I think about these things, Litton, but you will do something about them.” I have since regretted my failure to follow that up by asking him to be more specific.
¶Don was working as a page at the public library. As soon as the next business day (probably a Monday) came, I took the bus downtown to look for a job, carrying a hefty sack lunch which Don’s mother foisted on me. When I told her I could pay for my own lunch, she replied with words I would hear from her a couple of times afterwards: “It just doesn’t add up in dollars and cents.” Seattle’s employment market was a good deal thinner than Dallas’ at that time, so I felt lucky to have found a job within the first couple of days of my search; it was a stockman’s position at a hobby-and-craft wholesale business. The owner, a cordial and honest man in his thirties, told me the day he hired me that he was reluctant to hire anyone right then because he might have to lay me off, and he hated doing that, but he took me on with no guarantees.
¶In fact, a few weeks later, he did let me go, although not personally. However, that was not as unfortunate as the fact that he also let another young man go, and that youth was to have been my roommate in an apartment on which we had just paid a deposit. The apartment owner gruffly declined to refund our deposit. So, I wished my erstwhile “roommate” good luck and went to Don’s house to tell him the bad news: I couldn’t afford to stay any longer.
¶I had already checked on the train fare prices. “If you can loan me ten dollars, I can return to Dallas,” I said, as we stood by the bus stop. “If not, then I’m off to San Francisco.” He pulled a ten out of his billfold. When I bent down to pick up my military-issued duffel bag, the handle broke. Was that a bad omen? I wondered. Occasionally since that day, I have fantasized how my life might have turned out differently if Don had not had the ten to loan me or if I had not asked for it.
¶After I had returned to Dallas and to SMU, Don and I resumed our correspondence. But I am a very wordy letter-writer, and Don was brief in the extreme as well as hypercritical. One time, I wrote him a letter using many of the 300 Chinese characters I had learned at Yale. I also included a satirical cartoon depicting a man in a Nazi uniform, holding a swagger stick and looking over a fellow who was sitting in front of an easel and drawing on it. (I was majoring in art at the time.) A cartoon “balloon” above the Nazi’s head contained the letters “Click, click!” (Don had some kind of nervous tic that occasionally caused him to utter clicking noises.) In a separate section of the drawing’s page, I conceded that my artistic ability was not in commendable condition and I perhaps should give up the effort. In his reply letter, Don wrote that I should give up writing in Chinese, too.
¶I haven’t related all the instances of Don’s hypercriticism, but there were several. Finally, after I had sent him a copy of a very brief story I had entered in a short story contest sponsored by SMU’s student literary magazine, he replied by panning my story for its inadequate characterization and anti-intellectualism. He concluded with one of the most cliché-burdened sentences I have ever seen: “For poor writing, your story takes the cake palms down. Hope you can get it back before the judges see it.” In a fit of angry exasperation, I wrote back saying, in part, “I’m tired of your vapid little notes to me.”
¶And that was the end of one of the most interesting relationships of my life. I have softened over the years and now wonder how Don’s own life turned out. He had told me he was going to return to the university he had attended before joining the air force, and probably major in Chinese. Apparently he lost interest in German. Hope he finished and benefited from that education.
¶One question Don asked me while I was a guest in his grandfather’s house—another one of those questions and remarks directed at me throughout my life which I did not respond to—was, “What do you want from me?” I did not answer, and now I wish that I had, for the answer was what I was all about at the time: “I want to discover what the bwō cháng is, but it seems to have faded away before I could find out.”

Finis

The Birds and I

house-sparrow

House Sparrow > Photo Credit: Bing Images/imgarcade.com

©2016 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: In the narrative below, I will be using masculine and feminine pronouns while referring to the birds I discuss, when actually I had no idea of what their genders were. I believe readers will understand my reason for assuming this literary license in preference to factual accuracy if they take the time to substitute with the neuter forms.
* * * * * *

¶Birds affect our imagination more than any other creatures because they seem to be the least bounded in their movements. They embody our concept of total freedom. The most famous of them — the eagle and the dove — have been assumed to be messengers from the gods; the raven and the owl supposedly are omens of catastrophe, or at least ill fortune. Almost any bird fills us with awe because of its beautiful plumage or melodious “song”.
¶My own experience of birds has been generally restricted to the commoner species: house sparrows, barn swallows, grackles, and jays. Less frequently have I observed the rarer robins, hummingbirds and mockingbirds, not to mention a few species I cannot name because I saw them only once and had not the remotest idea what they were. I am neither an ornithologist nor a bird watcher.
¶Nonetheless, just to touch a wild bird, of whatever variety, or to have one perceiving me as an aid or threat can be a revelation of sorts. I recall an episode during my elementary school years — I was nine or ten years old — when a sparrow managed to force his way into our house. He perched quietly upon my right shoulder as I was half-reclined on my bed, reading some magazine. He must have been there at least a minute before I realized it, because I had sensed his weight as he settled but was only half aware of what I assumed must be my collar slipping. Finally one of his movements broke in on my consciousness, and you can imagine the shock I felt upon looking around to discover a sparrow on my shoulder. I jumped up in such a fright that all my usual reverence for Nature evaporated. It was the bird’s turn to be terrified now as I chased him around the house, swatting at him with a broom. At last the harried creature found his exit through what must have been his entry, a broken loose corner of the front door screen.
¶In later years I occasionally wondered if that bird had previously been tamed by some human so that he believed it quite a normal behavior to alight on my shoulder. I regretted acting as I had toward the sparrow, but it was absurd to regret anything done while wrought up as I was then. If another sparrow were to perch on my shoulder now I would probably react in much the same way. Anyhow, he did manage to escape uninjured.
¶A year or two later, while I was visiting one of my uncles in the Rio Grande Valley, in deep South Texas, another sparrow stunned itself by flying against the living room’s large plate glass window. I heard her thump and went out on the porch to see whether she was still alive. The dazed bird was squatting there on the cement porch, huddled up much as though she were brooding over eggs. I picked the creature up and smoothed her feathers for a couple of minutes. Body-wise, she was unharmed, as far as I could tell, but she was so indifferent to me and to her environment generally that I got the idea she might have suffered brain damage. Maybe the collision had turned the bird into an idiot. I set the sparrow on the grassy lawn and went to fetch a saucer of water, hoping on the way that she would be gone when I returned. But she wasn’t; there she was, stupid in the sun, when I got back. I put the saucer down in front of the sparrow’s beak, and still she took no notice. By now I was getting frustrated; there were other things I wanted to do that day. I stood hovering over the little creature like a human Eiffel tower and tried my best to imitate a marine sergeant’s tone: “Fly! Go on! Fly away!” The sparrow didn’t move. Cruel out of desperation, I bent down, picked the bird up, and tossed her into the air. She went up before my thrust, dropped a foot or two, flapped madly a second, hovering, and then took off.
¶That should atone, I thought, for the earlier sparrow episode. For days afterwards I went about feeling warmly pantheistic. “Just don’t startle me, Mother Nature,” I mused, “and I’ll serve you, but you must expect a reaction if you surprise your devotee.”
¶Mother Nature must not have been placated by my vow or intimidated by my threat, because the next time I had direct contact with a bird it came swooping out of a scrub oak’s leafy canopy and made a dive bomber’s attack at my head. (That was when I was attending the university.) Perhaps some unintended provocation was apparent in that I was wearing a wide-brimmed panama with a brightly colored band. Everyone knows how some birds like to decorate their nests with bright colors. Also, this particular assailant was a mockingbird, a species known for its jealous sense of private domain. I had often seen some mockingbird careering over a squirrel’s or cat’s back, but I had never expected one to be audacious enough to attack a human, especially me.
¶But that was in no way the last such incident. A few years later, as I was opening the gate to my yard, I heard some loud squawks and caws at my feet as well as the same above and behind me. Startled to a stop, I glanced down and then up. On the flag stone walk below, a terrified young blue jay was running around in circles and screeching at the top of his voice. Above me, swooping, flapping and screeching in their turn, were two full-grown and very angry jays, presumably the youngster’s anxious parents. Apparently, I had intruded on his first training flight and scared him so much he couldn’t leave the ground. He must have been perched in one of the diamond-shaped vacancies of the chain-link fence when I pushed it open. Papa and Mama jay continued to make diving sorties at my head, forcing me to duck and rush to the steps of my apartment. After Junior had regained his wind and wits, his parents zoomed after him into the foliage of a nearby pecan tree. I thought I discerned derisive notes in their victorious cawing as they flew from one branch to another.

mockingbird8

Southern Mockingbird > Photo Source: Bing Images/myschoolisgreat.org

¶Well, that brings me almost up to date; but I feel that this familiar essay won’t be complete unless I reprise briefly that episode of the day I had my first mystical experience, which involved a mockingbird. You can read the anecdote more fully by pulling up my post of March 30, 2015 titled “My Spiritual Journey (to date)”. I was deeply involved in Alcoholics Anonymous at the time and had finally come around to recognizing that possibly there really is a god, or “higher power” as the 12-Steppers prefer to call to him/her/it. I had been impressed by how, at every meeting, at least five out of 20-plus attendees would speak almost directly to my situation, and how those folks fervently believed that the “higher power” spoke to them through other people. I wondered if the only voices God used were those of humans: why not other creatures? One day, I left my apartment and was unlocking the door to my truck when I heard a mockingbird behind me, chirping his plagiarized songs. I turned around to see a young oak tree about seven feet tall that had been planted in a green space separating two parking areas. I couldn’t see the bird, but I was certain he was in that tree. I stood still several minutes trying to detect a message from God in that bird’s voice, but of course to no avail. Finally I said, “Sorry, God. Guess I’m just not there yet.” Then I got into my truck and drove away.
¶The next morning, a Sunday, lying in my bed and reading a New Yorker magazine, I perused the translation of a poem by Lars Gustafson and translated from the Swedish by Yvonne L. Sandstroem. The crux of the poem was about an 86-year-old Mexican woman who had recently died.  When the doctors examined her they discovered she had been carrying around a dead fetus in her womb for 60 years. Stuck right in the middle of the lengthy poem were the following lines about a bird who apparently had annoyingly caught the attention of the poet as he was trying to compose his poem. They are an interruption in the poem, yet a part of it:
….. Mockingbird, what do you want?
You have so many voices, and I don’t know which one of them to take seriously.
The scornful sometimes, the complaining sometimes —
then there’s a kind of clucking,
on certain days in early spring,
when dampness still clings to the moss on the oaks,
as if you didn’t quite want to speak out.
Mockingbird in the green oak tree!
What’s the secret you sit there trying to
swallow?

¶That was the real beginning of my spiritual journey. Ever since that morning, whenever I hear a mockingbird I feel uplifted.

Finis

Missing the Presence

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶A [person] should shine with the divine Presence without having to work at it. He should get the essence out of things and let the things themselves alone. That requires at first attentiveness and exact impressions, as with the student and his art. One must be permeated with divine Presence, informed with the form of beloved God who is within him, so that he may radiate that Presence without working at it….
¶The effect or expression of love often appears like a bright light, as spirituality, devotion, or jubilation and yet, as such, it is by no means best! These things are not always due to love. Sometimes they come of having tasted nature’s sweets. They also can be due to heavenly inspiration or to the senses, and people at their best are not the ones who experience them most. For if such things are really due to God, He gives them to such people to bait and allure them on and also to keep them away from [worse] company. But when such people increase in love, such [ecstatic] experiences will come less facilely, and the love that is in them will be proved by the constancy of their fidelity to God, without such enticements.
—Meister Eckhart, The Talks of Instruction, §§7, 10
———
¶The Holy Spirit bears witness to our spirit that we are the [children] of God. This testimony which grace affords to our conscience is the true joy of the soul….And when the soul is in this state of peace, it is also refined in thought….
¶This manna is heavenly food and the bread of angels, as Holy Scripture says. For angels are fed and filled by the clear sight and burning love of God; and that is manna. For we may ask what it is, but we cannot fully understand. One who loves God is not filled with manna here, but while he remains in the body he receives a small taste of it.”
— Walter Hilton (b. 1340-45, d. 1396), The Ladder of Perfection, Bk. II, Chap. 40

¶Anyone who has regularly read my posts since I began it in January 2013 can probably recall that a few of the writings concerned spiritual events and reflections as I experienced them. Off and on in my youth I pondered the option of becoming a Methodist minister and briefly — when I was virtually inebriated with mysticism — even a monk. The late Clark Calvert, who was my pastor and mentor for a few years when I had announced that I was going into the ministry, told me that “once God calls you He never lets you go”. I think Clark meant for that remark to reassure me, but actually it scared me a little. I had my doubts: I wasn’t totally accepting of the Apostle’s Creed and I didn’t relish the prospect of people changing their tone and addressing me as “Reverend” when I approached them.
¶Eventually I became disillusioned with organized religion and quit going to church. I had become weary of church members forming cliques and quarreling with each other; of ministers criticizing other ministers and even off-handedly noting the aging and decline not only of our congregation but of mainstream Protestantism itself. The only religious groups that seemed to be growing were the tiresomely antique Catholic Church; the “gospel of wealth” mega-churches; and the “hard shell” denominations such as the Baptists and the Disciples of Christ, who appeared to believe that the surest metric of one’s salvation was the number of Bible verses one has memorized.
¶Nonetheless, I retained the memories of the better elements of my church-going days: the summer evenings when the windows of White Rock Methodist would be raised and we would be seated in our pews, fanning ourselves with those illustrated hand fans and singing zestfully songs like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “Amazing Grace”. And I still ponder positively some of the remarks of Jesus: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”…” “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak….” etc.
¶Then, in midlife, I had my truly major spiritual awakening. I am not speaking here of the assurance of “being saved” about which the more orthodox evangelicals speak, nor of being “called”, although some people might describe it as such. No, while I was out on my morning walk around White Rock Lake one day, I felt a sudden sense of knowing, of a notice within my mind or heart or soul that I was “blessed”. Yes, it was a pleasant insight, it certainly did not harm me, but it did surprise and puzzle me because I did not understand what being spiritually blessed really means.* Of course, I knew that I had been blessed with some artistic gifts (which I had not nurtured to the degree that I should have) but that was history — an established known quantity — and this seemed to relate to a more immediate and singular condition. I did not know for sure what it meant then; nor do I know now; however, I have chosen intellectually to interpret it to mean that the Holy Spirit had extended His grace to me, opened my eyes, and presented itself as my guide to whatever extent I was capable and willing to be guided. If so, then that was indeed a major blessing. But what exactly did it entail?
¶I read many mystical works during that time, a period which has become muddled chronologically after two decades so that I cannot relate the events as coherently as I would like. But that is not necessary anyway. The salient elements are still available: (1) I read all those mystics to find the essence of a few terms: “yearning” [John Ruysbroeck], “the lure” [Meister Eckhart], and “dark night of the soul” [John  of the Cross]; (2) I was practically bombarded, it seemed, by strange experiences, some of which were interpretable as spiritual consolations (mystical encouragements to continue the search) as well as others which were simply weird with no apparent connection to the spiritual life; and (3) I learned that a day would come when the consolations would end, the Presence would leave me in the “dark night of the soul”. And that’s where I have been for a little over two decades.
¶I have posted on this site (March 30, 2015) a much longer account of my spiritual journey. There is not much point in pursuing the discussion any further here. Rather, I want to reveal my plea to the Holy Spirit about the hunger I feel for a return — even if only a brief one — of the Presence. I don’t know for sure why I feel this urgency now; I am aware that my request goes beyond the bounds of the usual spiritual progression and that I should not expect any more special attention. Perhaps my hunger comes out of my getting old, perceiving that the twilight of my life is nigh and hoping that I won’t go to the ashes jar while still in the dark night. Or perhaps it derives from my perception of modern life as a devolution into absurdity and insanity, and my hope that the Holy Spirit will help me make sense of all the craziness. Or perhaps both.

————
*For more commentary on the “blessed” question see my blog post of Oct. 26, 2014.

Finis

Beauty in Ordinary Things

trees3

One of the fleeting, annual days of beauty at my apartment complex. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Ruggia.

© 2015 By Bob Litton

“You find the beauty in ordinary things. Do not lose this ability.”
                                                 — Note from a fortune cookie

I love serendipity. It has played such a prominent role in my adult life that I have granted it mystical powers, for the things I find while looking for something else have often spoken eloquently to my mind, my heart, my soul. Sometimes the messages have not been as positive as the epigraph above: sometimes they have been melancholy, but more often they have indeed been enlightening and even funny.

That cookie fortune, for instance, I came upon serendipitously just a few days ago while clearing my computer table of the mass of larger papers on it. Of course, I obtained the fortune months ago when I ate lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. I saved it for some reason I have forgotten; I would surmise, however, that I liked its assessment of me and the sentiment attending that assessment. Even the imperative sentence that follows is appreciable: it both exposes the fragility of the attuneness and enjoins me to nurture it. Not the sort of “fortune” I expect to find in such cookies; it does not predict anything.

So, how does that relate to the above photo of leaves? Well, the more obvious connection should not be difficult, dear reader, for you to perceive. Most people, I believe, look forward to the few weeks when the crisp air causes the leaves of the many trees to change from green to russet, gold, yellow, maroon, brown and even combinations of those colors within the same leaf. The last mentioned aspect is typical of the non-bearing mulberry trees on my apartment’s campus. I have been fascinated and amused by the color combinations in some of the leaves on the sidewalk and the driveway: one leaf, for instance, was a perfect imitation of a soldier’s camouflaged field jacket — tan and olive; another leaf was yellow with small brown dots, almost uniform in size and shape, that reminded me of a ladybug.  I picked up four of the leaves the other day and laid them on my computer desk, where I am admiring them now even as they curl with dryness.

I have always enjoyed the color changes of autumn, but it seems that only this year have they meant so much to me that I practically adore them. This sudden acuteness to the sight of leaves is akin, I believe, to the vividness that the sounds of the acorns falling and rolling down my roof revealed; remember that I wrote about the acorns a few blog posts ago (Oct. 3). All the senses participate in this miracle of perception.

You remember, don’t you, Karen Carpenter’s song “Where Do I go from here?”? The early lines are:

Autumn days lying on a bed of leaves
Watching clouds up through the trees
You said our love was more than time.
It’s colder now;
The trees are bare and nights are long;
I can’t get warm since you’ve been gone….

Well, without the evocative music — not to mention Karen’s voice — some of the point I wish to make loses some of its emphasis. Those words remind me of my youthful days in Dallas, during the early winter, when the skies were a solid gray, with sagging clouds promising snow. The darkness of such a day was paralleled by the stillness of it. Someone unattuned to the fall season might imagine that such a scene would be depressing, but it did not strike me that way; as long as there was not a strong, cold wind I felt comfort in that setting. Now that the seasons are vanishing, the romance has diminished also.

Another old song — from ancient days when lyricists actually said something worth paying attention to in their lines — is “Autumn Leaves”, one of Andy Williams’ first hits:

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold.
I see your lips, the summer kisses,
The sun-burned hands I used to hold.

Since you went away the nights grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song,
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall.

Now, I will concede that these two songs do reflect melancholy, but it is a melancholy of gentle love…of the yearning for coziness which only two bodies hugging each other can provide…which a fireplace cannot.

We also view the color-changing and falling leaves as symbolic of the transiency of Life itself. The curse in the fruit of Eden’s tree is not just new awareness of nakedness and fear; it also includes more momentously the anticipation of death. While fore-knowledge of death is not restricted to humans, we do seem to have a more lifelong curiosity and occasional fear of it; perhaps what sets our knowledge of death apart from that of other creatures is that we can visualize it, to an extent, as pre-existing within ourselves.

But then, after the leaves have been swept away and a few snowfalls have bonneted the bare limbs for a few months, the buds of new leaves appear. I wonder how many people, like me, are a bit disconcerted by this cycling from chartreuse and forest greens to a multitude of fiery tones. And then their disappearance. Yes, it is a topsy-turvy world where winter symbolizes our giving up the ghost, and then the spring interrupts our acceptance with a “Hey, hold on there! Don’t give up just yet! There is more to this show!”

And so, we start all over again…a bit surprised, a bit amused, a bit perplexed.

Finis

To add a little seasoning to the above essay, readers, you might want to check out the YouTube presentations of the two songs I mentioned. Try the URL’s below:

“Where Do I Go From Here?”  (Karen Carpenter)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDvDd-kW8Os

“Autumn Leaves” (Andy Williams)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMfzXpI98-0

 

My Spiritual Journey (to date)

Pentecost

IMAGE SOURCE: MS Word Clip Art

By Bob Litton (except for credited quotations)

NOTE TO READERS: I want to alert you to the fact that the preface in this post is 645 words long, and the post’s body itself contains 4,675 words. With that warning before you, you can better decide whether you want to read it all. I hope you do, and I hope that you benefit from that reading. I guarantee you that it is not an April Fool’s Day joke. Enjoy!!!

Preface

Next Sunday is Easter Sunday. I had not paid any attention to that fact of life until today (March 30), when the notion popped into my head to publish a testimony I had delivered on Pentecost Sunday in 1997.

But first I believe it would be fitting to preface the testimony with a brief backstory. At the time of this event, I was much involved in the local United Methodist Church; I was even helping the pastor teach a 34-week Bible study course called Disciple. I discovered then that I was a pretty good teacher; so did the pastor and some of the eleven other class members. (Classes were limited to twelve members to mirror the number of the original disciples.) I think that realization was probably the seed for the “event”.

One day, the pastor asked me if I could substitute for him in the following Sunday’s service; he explained that he needed to be in El Paso (237 miles west) that weekend for his son’s graduation from the university. Then, on Friday, while I was describing my sermon topic to a Dallas friend, she exclaimed, “Why, that’s Pentecost Sunday!” I had not even been aware of that fact, for the liturgical aspects of religion hardly mattered to me. However, this time, my friend’s information struck me “between the eyes”, for Pentecost was the day the Holy Spirit was introduced to the disciples; and the principle topic of my “testimony” was my first conscious contact with what Christians call that mystical being. Other faiths have different titles and descriptions of the same “person”, but their own experiences have been and are largely consonant with those of the historical Christian mystics. That is why, I believe, most mystics have not been much accepted, during their lives, by their religious leaders.

When Sunday came I was surprised to see the pastor in the sanctuary; I have forgotten (if in fact he ever explained) why he was not in El Paso. However, I have since suspected I had been the victim of a ruse; the pastor and one of the Disciple class members had pushed me (metaphorically speaking) into the pulpit. But then, the pastor, having noticed I had some sheets of paper in my hand, introduced me by disparaging the reading of sermons. The problem with his criticism—although I agree unread sermons are generally more effective than read ones—is that I am really weak at thinking and speaking “on my feet”; also, my talk contained several quotations which I needed to read to the congregation.

Before the service started, the pastor stuck a small microphone on my shirt. After I began the testimony—which I prefer to call it because I did not feel qualified or authorized to tell people how to live through a sermon—the microphone malfunctioned, now working fine, now not working. I faced a dilemma: whether to remove the microphone or persevere regardless of what it did. Did the Holy Spirit not want me to read the testimony? Or did the Holy Spirit not want me to share with others our relationship? I persevered to the end, willing to accept any retribution the Holy Spirit deemed satisfactory.

A few months later, after I had returned to Dallas, I gave a copy of the testimony to Bob Cooper, former associate chaplain at Southern Methodist University and an old friend of mine. Soon thereafter Bob Cooper met with me in a coffee shop and critiqued it. He said it contained much interesting and worthwhile content. However, he remarked, “It is too long and has too many long quotations in it.”

“But,” I responded, “I timed myself the day before, and it took only twenty minutes.”

“Then you read too fast.”

Dear readers, see how fast you can read my testimony on the Holy Spirit.

Testimony of a Spiritual Journey

(A sermon delivered at the First United Methodist Church of Alpine, Texas, on Pentecost Sunday, May 18, 1997)

Text: Romans 8:18-27      

I consider that the sufferings of this present generation are not worth comparing with the glory that is revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved.  Now, hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Good morning! My name is Bob. I am a sinner. Do you wonder why I introduce myself in that way?  I hope so, because I intend to tell you. There are three reasons.

The first has to do with my credentials for speaking here today. I know you are sinners. I want to make you feel comfortable by admitting I am a sinner also. We have at least that much in common right from the start.

Secondly, I need to remind myself that I am a sinner. I think you should remind yourselves of that, too. When we attend church every Sunday, contribute to our community through various volunteer programs, and try to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, it is easy for our sense of sin to get crusty—to glaze over—so that we cannot see it without extra effort.

But we are in the world, and—no matter how generally holy we become—we can’t help but slip once in a while. Think of the world as a huge fallow field with all sorts of weeds as well as beneficial grasses in it. You can’t walk through that field without a few grass burrs clinging to your pants legs.

The third reason I announce my sinfulness is that sin, in general, is about as close as “normal people” can get to the gift shared by alcoholics—their disease. That’s right. I said the alcoholics’ problem is a GIFT—or it can be if he or she ever rises above the denial stage.

You see, when an alcoholic realizes his true condition, especially if he’s a hard case who has already lost his family, his job, and maybe even killed someone in an auto accident he gets scared. If he still has a modicum of his wits about him, he searches for help. HIS VERY LIFE IS AT STAKE.

Thus, people in a 12-step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, for the most part take their program very seriously. Before each one in a group speaks he introduces himself in this manner: “Hi!  My name is John (never a last name); I’m an alcoholic.” They turn to God—even to a God they may not really believe in—as well as to other alcoholics for help. They pray; they diligently work the twelve steps; they make themselves available to other alcoholics going through a crisis at any time of the day or night; they facilitate 12-step meetings in jails and wherever else they might be needed.

I was in AA for two years. It was one of the best, the most growth-filled, experiences of my life. I was an agnostic when I went in—in rebellion against the God of my youth. A year into the program, I was probably the most spiritually-minded person in that group.

However, while spirituality is the foundation upon which a 12-step program such as AA stands, it is not the primary purpose of the program. No, the primary purpose is to stay sober or to give up gluttony or to forgo promiscuous sex or whatever the addiction is. So, the thing to do is to talk about your addiction, not about God—at least not solely about God. (The first three steps are called the God steps.)

After a few months into the program, the spiritual atmosphere of that group began to affect me.  I had never really given up my search for God—God as a tangible experience, as something more than a concept in a book written thousands of years ago. I began to have spiritual experiences, charismatic experiences. Some of them were weird. I began to read the classic spiritual writers—St. Augustine, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Jacob Boehme, William Law. I saw that others long before me had experienced the same sort of spiritual gifts I was experiencing. I wanted to talk about these experiences. But AA no longer seemed the appropriate place to discuss spirituality per se.

I returned to the church of my youth—the Methodist Church, or, as it was now called, the UNITED Methodist Church. I hadn’t been inside a church (except for weddings) in 40 years. And I was shocked. There weren’t many people there, and the few who were didn’t seem interested in spirituality as I understood spirituality—at all. As one woman put it, “Half of us come here out of habit, and half to get some social life.”

I began to ponder why. AA was spiritual and the people in the church were for the most part not spiritual. Several possible reasons came to mind, but the one most pertinent to today’s message was that THE CHURCH PEOPLE DIDN’T FEEL ANY THREAT TO THEIR LIVES. The alcoholics had their disease to scare them and to unify them in their search for God. The church people had nothing except possibly a nebulous sense of sin—a sense too vague, honestly, to scare them and only barely strong enough to unite them, after a fashion.

What was I looking for? I was looking for God. During my sojourn in AA—what I call “my term among the Essenes”—God had set some lures, however slight, to attract me to him.

One day, for instance, while on coffee break at an insurance company, I was reading a book about poetry. The author provided by way of example of simile a fragment of verse which read:

……………………….. And music,

Yearning like a god in pain.

I thought I recognized the scrap of verse, but the author didn’t cite the poet. “That looks like something Shelley might have written!” I said to myself. I went home and skimmed an anthology of British poetry. I couldn’t find the line in any of Shelley’s poems. Then I tried Keats. And there was the line in Keats’  “Eve of St. Agnes”.

Then, one day not long afterwards, for some forgotten reason I was reading Jeremiah. In his 31st chapter, verses 18 through 20, I read this poignant dialogue between God and Ephraim. Since this is a dialogue and I don’t want to disturb the poetry by specifying who is speaking when, please take the Revised Standard Version Bible from the rack in front of you and turn to Jeremiah 31:18 and follow along as I read aloud.

I have heard Ephraim bemoaning:

“Thou hast chastened me, and I was

chastened,

like an untrained calf;

bring me back that I may be restored,

for thou art the Lord my God.

For after I turned away I repented;

and after I was instructed I smote upon my thigh;

I was ashamed, and I was confounded,

because I bore the disgrace of my youth.”

                     Is Ephraim my dear son?

                     Is he my darling child?

           For as often as I speak against him,

                    I do remember him still.

          Therefore my heart yearns for him;

I will surely have mercy on him,” says the Lord.

There was that word again—YEARN—that had such a strange hold on me. Why did it attract me so?

On another day soon afterwards I was reading Gilbert Murray’s book on the Greek dramatist Euripides, and I came upon this paragraph where he describes the religious origin of Greek drama, particularly of the chorus:

The word ‘chorus’ means ‘dance’ or ‘dancing ground’. There were such dancing floors on Greek soil before ever the Greeks came there. They have been found in prehistoric Crete and in the islands. We hear in Homer of the ‘houses and dancing grounds’ of the Morning Star. The dance was as old as mankind; only it was a kind of dance that we have forgotten. The ancient dance was not, like our ballets, rooted in sexual emotion. It was religious: It was a form of prayer. It consisted in the use of the whole body, every limb and every muscle, to express somehow that overflow of emotion for which a man has no words. And primitive man had less command of words than we have. When the men were away on the warpath, the women prayed for them with all their bodies. They danced for the men’s safe return. When the tribe’s land was parching for lack of rain the tribesmen danced for the rain to come. The dance did not necessarily imply movement. It might consist in simply maintaining the same rigid attitude, as when Moses held out his arms during the battle with the Amelekites.The dramatist may make his characters express all that they can properly feel; he may put into articulate dialogue all that it will be. But there still remains some residue which no one on the stage can personally feel and which can only express itself as music or YEARNING of the body. This residue finds its instrument in the chorus.

And I read in the writings of the Quaker William Law, an early mentor of John Wesley, the following:

Every man that has any feeling of the weight of his sin, or any true desire to be delivered from it by Christ, has learning and capacity enough to make his own prayer. For prayer is not speaking forth eloquently, but simply, the true desire of the heart….

It is not silence, or a simple petition, or a great variety of outward expressions that alters the nature of prayer, or makes it good or better, but only and solely the reality, steadiness and continuity of the desire; and therefore, whether a man offers this desire to God in the silent LONGING of the heart, or in simple short petitions, or in a great variety of words is of no consequence. But if you would know what I would call a true and great gift of prayer, and what I most of all wish for myself, it is A GOOD HEART THAT STANDS CONTINUALLY INCLINED TOWARDS GOD.

And in St. John of the Cross’s classic work Dark Night of the Soul I read:

…there soon begins to make itself felt a certain YEARNING toward God; and the more this increases, the more is the soul affectioned and enkindled in love toward God, without knowing, or understanding how and whence this love and affection come to it, but from time to time seeing this flame and this enkindling, grow so greatly within it that it desires God with a YEARNING of love……

Finally, as we heard today in the scripture reading from the 8th chapter of Romans, St. Paul said:

The creation waits with eager LONGING for the Revealing of the sons of God…. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies…. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

That “longing” and that “groaning,” (as Paul calls it) is the same as the “yearning” described in the previous passages I read to you, and what I very often feel. That is the Holy Spirit helping us in our wordless, constant prayer.

To try and further convince you that the Holy Spirit is alive and well and working in our lives right now, I will testify to some other aspects of his showing to me. I must first emphasize that these revelations or graces or consolations were not granted me because I deserved them. If I had deserved them they would not have been graces, but rewards. Like Paul, I had rebelled against God until He said, “Enough of this!  You’re getting old, Bob, and I have work for you to do.  Stop behaving like an untrained calf!”

On at least two occasions I have smelled the fragrance of the Holy Spirit. I did not know what it was when I smelled it. On both occasions I was in parking lots, one near the AA group’s meeting place and the other at my apartment complex. On both occasions I looked about me to discover where the sweet aroma was coming from. There were no flowering plants, no perfumed women in the vicinity, only oak and pecan trees and a whole bunch of concrete. I wondered what could have caused the briefly lingering fragrance, but I didn’t at the time attribute any supernatural cause to it.

In St. John of the Cross I read that such a fragrance is one of the consolations God grants new converts, to further lure them to seek him, a sweet milk of spiritual favor granted before he withdraws it, weaning the convert, much as a mother (in those days) spread bitter aloes over her breast to wean her child and lead him toward a more solid diet.

And in Father John Arintero’s The Mystical Evolution I read:

Now Jesus Christ, in everything that he touched during his mortal life—as poverty, abjection, the cross—left a sweet odour, a delicious savour, but few souls have their senses sufficiently purified to perceive this odour and to taste this savour, which are altogether supernatural. The saints have “run to the odour of these ointments”.

And the Holy Spirit has entered my heart or mind—I know not which, if there is indeed any difference.  In most cases these silent communications appeared at first to be simply my own thoughts, yet thoughts I was compelled to utter aloud, even though no one was around to hear me. What I am saying, is that I have prophesied. Curiously, however, in many instances these “prophecies” were what I would consider inconsequential. I will relate here two of the more significant episodes, one from the first of my spiritual journey and the other from near the end of the consolations period.

The first is from my journal entry dated October 5, 1990.

Leaving my apartment on this clear, cool, clean day, I heard a mockingbird singing in the small oak tree that shades my pickup from the morning sun.  At least I believe it was a mockingbird, for I could not see it; it apparently was perched on the other side of the green-leafed branches.  Remembering my resolution to try and hear God’s voice through other beings besides humans, I paused by my truck’s door, my hand resting on the door handle. The bird had an impressively inclusive repertory, by which evidence I concluded it was a mockingbird. Yet, willing as I was and trying as I might, I could not distinguish any message for me from God—or even from the bird qua bird. Finally, I smiled, shook my head, and said, “Sorry, God.  I guess I’m just not there yet.” I got into my truck and drove away.

Two mornings later, on October 7, before rising from bed, I reached over to pick up a New Yorker magazine I had bought the night before.  After scanning the cartoons (always a first priority when it involves the New Yorker) I started reading the poems.  One poem, by Lars Gustafson and translated from the Swedish by Yvonne L. Sandstroem, was about an 86-year-old Mexican woman who had recently died.  When the doctors examined her they discovered she had been carrying around a dead fetus in her womb for 60 years.

Stuck right in the middle of the lengthy poem were the following lines about a bird who apparently had annoyingly caught the attention of the poet as he was trying to compose his poem. They are an interruption in the poem, yet a part of it:

….. Mockingbird, what do you want?

You have so many voices, and I don’t know which one of them to take seriously.

The scornful sometimes, the complaining sometimes —

then there’s a kind of clucking,

on certain days in early spring,

when dampness still clings to the moss on the oaks,

as if you didn’t quite want to speak out.

Mockingbird in the green oak tree!

What’s the secret you sit there trying to

swallow?

Now for the second incident, which as I said earlier came at the end of my consolation period.  I was in a dark and lonely mood as I took my morning walk around a section of White Rock Lake in Dallas. I said to God something to this effect, “Oh Lord, I know you’ve withdrawn your favors from me so that I can become a spiritual adult. But I’m still weak. Please, just one more grace to let me know you’re still with me.”

I was walking up an asphalt road toward a coffee shop. Off to my left I could see a small dark cloud which looked as if it seriously had rain in it, even though it was ridiculously small and there were no other gray clouds up there. Suddenly a gust of wind, the sort you feel just before a rain starts, blew towards me. It stirred up a dust devil from the grit on the street. The grit hit me in the face. I said, “Okay, God, I can take a hint!” I thought that was His comical answer.

The next day I went to my job at a bookstore. I walked into the buying area in back. There alone was one of the other employees, a man named Ernest (name changed in respect of his privacy). He was looking over some used books, pricing them. “Are you wearing perfume?”  Ernest asked.

“No,” I replied and kept on going. I punched in my time card and looked at the schedule to see what time my register duty was. Then I thought a moment, came back to Ernest and said, “Ernest, I’ll tell you what you smelled. You exhaled the fragrance of the Holy Spirit. I know because I’ve smelled it before, too.”

I explained that God was simply trying to get his attention and build up his faith. He was calling him to Himself.  I told him that he could expect more strange occurrences in the coming days—episodes which many people might try to explain away as coincidences, but he would know better. I showed him a couple of paragraphs in a book of letters of spiritual direction by Louis XIV’s chaplain, Archbishop Francois Fenélon, that I thought might be clearer than my amateur explanation.

“This really speaks to me,” said Ernest, after reading one page. I loaned him the book so he could read the letter at his leisure and ponder its message.

The next day I asked Ernest if he had read the letter, and he replied, “Not yet.”

That astounded me. I mean, if I had been told by someone I thought trustworthy that God was trying to get my attention, I would have eagerly given my attention.

The third day I asked him again, “Well, Ernest, have you read that letter yet?”

“No,” he replied, “but a strange thing happened yesterday. A guy came in to sell some books. As we looked through them, he picked one up and said, ‘What’s this book doing here? That’s not my book!’

“It was Fenélon!” Ernest continued, adding, “I took two steps backward.”

I was just as surprised as Ernest was. Sure, I had prophesied what would happen to him, but I had no idea what particular experience he would have or when. I had simply extrapolated a probability based on my own experience.

A few days later I again asked Ernest if he had read the letter.

In a voice of exasperation, he said, “No, I haven’t, Bob.” Then, looking kind of panicky at me, he said, “Bob, you’re scaring me!”

I pondered the situation a couple of days, trying to figure out what God was up to and why Ernest was reluctant to respond. (Months later memories of one or two startling, even awful,  experiences that had happened to me, too, came back to me but they were much heavier than this situation.) Ernest seemed to be running from the Holy Spirit too soon, while I had been complaining that the contact had ended too soon. Finally, I went to Ernest and apologized for scaring him and I told him that perhaps that episode hadn’t been meant for him. Maybe it had been meant for me. I had asked for a consolation, a reassurance that all my own experiences were not figments of my imagination. Perhaps God wasn’t going to grant that prayer directly, but indirectly he would allow me to witness a grace given to someone else.

“Yes,” said Ernest, when I related this to him. “It validates you.”

A remark by Meister Eckhart seems apropos here:

The mind can never rest except in the essential truth which is locked up in it—the truth about everything. Essence alone satisfies, and God keeps on withdrawing, farther and farther away, to arouse the mind’s zeal and lure it on to follow and finally grasp the true good that has no cause. Thus, contented with nothing, the mind clamors for the highest good of all.

The “lure” is a prominent theme in Meister Eckhart’s writings.

Shortly after that, I entered the “dark night of the soul”,  the time when God withdraws, just as Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross had described it. Since I had read about the “night” and thus been forewarned, I thought it would be an easier experience for me. But it wasn’t, at least I don’t think it was. The graces—the consolations—ceased. “Too soon,”  I thought. “I’m still a child, a novice at this, Oh Lord,” I prayed. “Give me just a little more time!” But that wasn’t the way God works. He decides when a convert has had enough of the manna of his graces.

It was time for me to work toward spiritual maturity. I developed a mental indigestion from my reading of the spiritual classics; I quit reading them. I found it difficult to pray. I was strongly tempted to return to my previous dissipated lifestyle. But something was blocking me from doing that. It seemed like I couldn’t go back and I couldn’t go forward either. I was stuck in neutral.

Even worse, I had a strong sense of my sinfulness. It is a paradox that while I was wallowing in worldliness, I had little to no sense of sin; but as soon as I began to grow spiritually—­even very slightly it seemed—I was overwhelmed with a feeling of wickedness. At that time, I couldn’t perceive my condition in the way that Richard Foster describes it in his Celebration of Discipline:

It is true that those in the first flush of faith often are given unusual graces of the Spirit (Foster writes) just like a new baby is cuddled and pampered. It is also true that some of the deepest experiences of alienation and separation from God have come to those who have traveled far into the interior realms of faith.

St. John of the Cross likens this experience of spiritual dryness to the situation of a person in a dark dungeon for many years. There is a window there, but it is grimy with soot and no light gets in, so that the person spends much of his life in darkness. Then, suddenly, a mysterious force starts washing the window. Bright light flows in, blinding the prisoner. When his eyes finally adjust somewhat to the light, he notices all these dark specks—motes—floating around in the air. The motes, so numerous, which he had never seen before, are his sins; and he is overwhelmed with self-depreciation.

Here is what Thomas Keating has to say about the Dark Night in his book, Open Mind, Open Heart: the contemplative dimension of the Gospel:

One of the first effects of contemplative prayer is the release of the unconscious. This process gives rise to two different psychological states:The experience of personal development in the form of spiritual consolation, charismatic gifts or psychic powers; and the experience of human weakness through humiliating self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is the traditional term for the coming to consciousness of the dark side of one’s personality.

The release of these two kinds of unconscious energies needs to be safeguarded by well-established habits of dedication to God and concern for others. Otherwise, if one enjoys some of the spiritual consolation or development one may inflate with pride; or if one feels crushed by the realization of one’s spiritual impoverishment, one may collapse into discouragement or even despair. The cultivation of habits of dedication to God and service to others is the indispensable means of stabilizing the mind in the face of emotionally charged thoughts, whether of self-exaltation or of self-depreciation.

This message, lengthy as it was, is but a brief summary of my spiritual journey to date.  I wanted to share it with you.

Bob Litton

DEFINITION of “yearn” from Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, Vol. XX.

II.6.  intr.  To be deeply moved; to be moved with compassion; to have tender feelings; to mourn, grieve; to long for.

JEREMIAH, King  James Version

31:18 > I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus; Thou hast chastened me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke; turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God.

31:19> Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh; I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth.

31:20> Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he a pleasant child?  For since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy on him, saith the Lord.

JEREMIAH, Revised Standard Version (© 1946, 1952)

31:18> I hear Ephraim bemoaning

Thou hast chastened me, and I was chastened,

like an untrained calf;

bring me back that I may be restored,

for thou art the Lord my God.

31:19> For after I turned away I repented;

and after I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh;

I was ashamed, and I was confounded,

because I bore the disgrace of my youth.

31:20> Is Ephraim my dear son?

Is he my darling child?

For as often as I speak against him,

I do remember him still.

Therefore my heart yearns for him;

I will surely have mercy on him,

says the Lord.

Finis

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