Posts Tagged ‘Faith’

Spiritual Journey Resumed

©2017 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

 I want to make it clear from the outset that the ideas expressed in what follows are my own. Sure, some of them might resonate of past writers, for I cannot claim that any of my ideas are original; to do so would be patently absurd. After all, I am seventy-seven years old, I have read much during the past decades, and I have no photographic memory which might enable me to cite sources for every sentence. I have read theological and mystical works from the Hebrew, Greek and Chinese traditions, much of which has certainly affected my thought. Nonetheless, I feel impelled to indite here what I now consider my own perceptions and insights, regardless of how hand-me-down they might seem.
¶Incidentally, I will be committing a modern sin by reverting to the old practice of using masculine pronouns even when I am referring to all persons, regardless of gender. When I began writing this essay I used the forms “(s)he” and “him/her”, but it looked so sloppy and distracting that I changed them. My apologies if the changes offend any readers.

I. Religion and Spirituality
¶I doubt that many educated readers will fail to recognize the differences between religion and spirituality without my having to underline them. Still, for the sake of clarity I will here note the most salient contrasts.
¶Essentially, religion involves an established system of beliefs accompanied by a corpus of sacred writings dictating theological and moral dogma. It, naturally then, requires a community of adherents — people who consider it worthwhile, at least for the sake of companionship or fellow-feeling — to accept the dogma and rituals which have accrued around their religion.
¶Spirituality is more individualistic, although the spiritual seeker will not necessarily reject communion with another after “enlightenment”. Still, he most likely will be conscious of the differing tangential and ephemeral qualities of such contacts; for, like fingerprints and snowflakes, each person’s spiritual journey is unique and cannot be matched, either favorably or unfavorably, with another’s. Also, while the seeker might use the spiritual writings (particularly, biographies) of esteemed theologians, both ancient and modern, as guides, succorers, and encouragers of his own sojourn, he must still face a long, dim and paradoxical path with no assurance of a positive and final conclusion. For him there is no dogma or ritual, although he probably will cling to some of the moral teachings learned in earlier years under the tutelage of some religious teachers, notably the very general “Golden Rule”.
¶I am not going any further with profiling religionists, or in any great depth with the spiritual seekers. However, the bulk of this essay will be about the seekers’ paths in general. Essentially, it will be based upon my own search for teleological meaning.

II. The Idea of God
¶If we hold onto the concepts of “meaning” and “purpose” in life, we usually start our search with the idea of a personal god: I did. Despite multiple mystical experiences, however, I found it difficult to reconcile what I learned from those events and reading with a personal god as generally conceived (a sort of abstract Santa Claus). What was truly odd about my searching, though, was that I felt more inclined to give up the noun than the verb: my charisms led me to accept the personal relating while eschewing the personhood of my deity. Most Christians are theologically educated enough to be aware that their god is depicted as having three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Over the lengthy period of my spiritual growth I came to the realization that the “Father” was too abstract for me to recognize; the “Son” (Jesus) was too human in his ambivalence and longing for definition from others; but the Holy Spirit, although invisible and silent, was frequently present to me.
¶Some might insist that the Holy Spirit is always present; I cannot dispute that, nor do I even want to, but I can claim only that what I call the Holy Spirit has made its presence known to me at certain times through charismatic events. Something was tugging at me, nudging me forward, and rewarding me from time to time with provocative insights or charisms. Every time I tried to attach such experiences onto a “higher power” of any shape or form the whole effort fell from my mind and shattered; there were too many unfathomable paradoxes with which to contend. I decided to let the personal god go, let Him do his own thing and I would do mine. If our enterprises met and joined occasionally, then so be it; I wasn’t going to fight against such junctures, but neither was I going to push for them; for there are times when the Holy Spirit, when he is concerned about my situation, seems to have a different goal in mind than I do, and there are times when I doubt that he is even interested.
¶I do not deny that I am exceedingly curious about what I perceive as an inchoate aether with weight to it of some sort and seemingly some secretive intelligence within it. Such had to be there for any sort of “nudging” to occur. Now some exertion is required to keep myself from trying to impose a humanlike form onto the aether. Yes, there is something “out there” or “within me” that yearns for and pushes for meaning. No point in denying it.

III. Answering the Atheists
¶Several prominent cosmologists and other scientists have postulated that, since everything about us and about Nature can be explained without the god premise, there is no need for a First Cause: god. The Idea of God is irrelevant, they claim. I am perfectly willing to accept their postulate — for them — but I do not see why it should affect me any more than the declarations of the preachers in their descriptions of God should affect me. If they do not experience the supra-natural, then that is a “truth” for the scientists.
¶Actually, there still remain some important aspects of Nature which baffle the scientists, the most significant being “Dark Matter”, an invisible substance that occupies all the space between the objects we can see. British logician Bertrand Russell took umbrage at his favorite student, the German logician Ludwig Wittgenstein, when the latter claimed that his studies had led him to conclude that there is a point at which symbolic logic cannot answer our questions, a mystical point.
¶For their part, the preachers never tackle the subject of Jesus’s injunction to put out your eye if it sins, or his advocating love of enemies on one occasion and enjoining his disciples to carry swords on another day. Nor do they satisfactorily answer the question of why the “Trinity” does not constitute polytheism and why statues of Jesus and Mary are not idols. The story of Jesus was written by several different people and then complicated by a multitude of annotators during the following centuries. It’s a muddy amalgam from which many of us have chosen to “cherry-pick” what we will believe. Whether we use those sources or not, we still have to evolve or design our own religion or our own spirituality.
¶Really, I prefer to leave God out of any discussion of scientific research or how we treat each other. Yet I try to understand the relationship between me and the Presence (a term I prefer to “Holy Spirit” or “Holy Ghost”). I think I have researched the Presence too much, intellectualized Him nearly into oblivion. The Presence, I believe, prefers feeling over thinking. He seems removed from me now, and I yearn for his return; I don’t need to understand Him; I need to feel Him. If only I can restrain myself from trying to understand our relationship and how He performed the little miracles I have experienced . That’s hard.

Finis

Expectations of the Church and Disciples

©1999, 2016 By Bob Litton.

NOTE TO READERS: A couple of days ago I published another episode relating my spiritual journey. It is a mostly recondite, mystical piece that probably only a few people would be interested in.
¶But today, before getting off the theology train altogether, I want to publish the drafts for a couple of pamphlets which I wrote back in 1999 for my home church, at the time, back in Dallas. They were never published as pamphlets because the minister considered them too controversial. Perhaps some church elsewhere on the planet might view them in a more sympathetic light and make use of them. I should warn you beforehand that they are wordy: the first (What Disciples Expect of the Church) contains 1,761 words and the second (What the Church Expects of Disciples), 1,324 words.
¶One further bit of information: Recently, an acquaintance who is currently quite active in the United Methodist Church (not the same one I attended) looked over these pamphlets and pointed out to me that the UMC’s bishops have added a fifth item to their list of expectations: Witness. I think that was a good move on their part; however, I did not add it to my presentation here for two reasons: (1) I don’t believe witness was in the group when I composed the pamphlet and I want to publish these pamphlet models as originally intended; which leads me to (2), adding witness would destroy the symmetrical balance of my design (four expectations for each pamphlet). I know that sounds self-centered and childish of me, but there you have it, the dark side of Bob Litton. I should add that these pamphlet models have not been sanctioned or approved by the United Methodist Church or by any other denomination. I am solely responsible for them.
¶As noted next to my by-line, I have copyrighted these compositions. However, I don’t expect to make any money out of them. I want anybody who can make positive use of them—even in an edited form—to go ahead and do so. I just don’t want anyone to claim he or she was the original author. Also, even if readers can’t find a practical use for them, the writings might provide material for interesting conversations. I hope so.

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What do disciples expect from the Church?

¶When a person walks through a church door into a sanctuary full of strangers, what is he or she looking for?  What should they be looking for?  What in fact will they find?  This pamphlet is an attempt to answer those questions as honestly as possible.
¶Four primary elements motivate our search for a church home: Spirituality, Community, Relevance and Mission.  The only significance in that order is in the way these elements correlate, however roughly, with the four contributions the church expects of its disciples: Prayers, Presence, Gifts, and Service; all of which are discussed in a companion pamphlet to this one.  Otherwise, there is no hierarchy in their importance.
Spirituality — Of the four, spirituality is the most difficult to discuss because, even as the Holy Spirit lures us with a yearning to be nearer the holy ground, it thwarts knowledge—even clear perception—of the “holy ground’s” elementary features.  Jesus acknowledged the evanescence of the Holy Spirit:  “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  (John 3:7, 8)
¶The Holy Spirit can be “described” only obliquely through analogies such as the manna gathered by the Israelites in the wilderness.  The manna was given freely, it appeared overnight when no one could see it, there was enough for everyone, it was sufficient nourishment in and of itself, and it could not be preserved.  Is there anything in that description that is not true also of spirituality?
So how can a church develop and nurture an atmosphere conducive to spirituality?
¶A cross, a chancel rail, and stained glass windows help to a degree in at least keeping us attentive to the reason we walked into the sanctuary.  By themselves, however, they are insufficient to establish a truly spiritual atmosphere.  What is really needed is a yearning in the breast, both individually and as a congregation, to relate to, and depend on, God during a time of communal tribulation or celebration.  That doesn’t happen every Sunday, but it does happen.
¶Traditionally, spirituality in the church has required separation—however temporary—from the world, even from our church community.  Christ, we are told, went alone into the wilderness for his most intense spiritual focusing.  Later, he separated himself even from his disciples and went upon a mountainside to pray.
¶Today, we have retreat centers where we can go for two or more days, either solo or in a small group, to recollect ourselves through extended prayer and meditation.  That means examining our consciences more intensely, asking for and accepting God’s forgiveness, and rededicating ourselves to spiritual struggle.  Such centers are available throughout the U. S.  There is at least one very close at hand—Mt. Carmel Center in Oak Cliff.  Although operated by Carmelite monks, the retreat is open (for a fee) to all Christians.
¶And, of course, we can always have a prayer service here at our home church.  Unfortunately, the modern prevalence of burglaries and vandalism make it unwise for any chapel to be kept open 24 hours a day, but arrangements can be made to allow small groups to gather in the chapel or the sanctuary for a prayer service at any reasonable hour.
¶Frequent prayer, in fact, is the second factor that contributes to spirituality.  But the type of prayer that is most conducive to spirituality is not of the sort through which the pray-er talks a lot.  The most spiritual prayer is the “prayer of quiet”—the prayer that waits and allows the Holy Spirit to work upon the soul.  Such praying is difficult for the novice, for we discover then that our brain never rests; it must always be busy about something. To keep the mind from drifting onto the “stream of multiplicity” different cultures have devised simple, repetitive phrases such as,  “To you, Lord, I lift up my soul!” or “Lord God, come to my aid!”
¶Most disciples—if indeed they are true disciples—want an atmosphere congenial and conducive to prayer.  Yet most of us are uncomfortable with extended periods of quiet; our culture militates against it.  Even in the sanctuary, the ideal of fellowship usually over-rides the ideal of spiritual quiet.  Do we really want it that way?
Community —  In his book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Harold Kushner recalls asking his atheistic father why he went to the synagogue every week.  His father replied: “My friend Garfinkel goes to the synagogue to talk to God; I go to the synagogue to talk to Garfinkel.”  There is much insight in this comment.  Kushner’s father respects, maybe even reveres, his friend Garfinkel enough to go to a place toward which ordinarily he is at best indifferent.  And he goes there to enjoy the wholesome fellowship he covets and that Garfinkel exemplifies.  Moreover, he is not unaware of the irony inherent in the situation: Where Garfinkel is seeking a relationship with the divine; he himself is seeking a relationship with the earthly.
¶Indeed, many people start attending any particular church because a friend, or someone they admire, goes there.  They want both to spend more time in the vicinity of that person and to do the things he does because of a belief that everything that person does must be worthwhile.
¶Once involved, though, the novice may become disenchanted; for, although it is quite possible to find wholesomeness and good-naturedness and kindness in an individual person, expecting every church member to possess all those virtues is naive.  And therein lies the cost of belonging.  While a congregation in the large can be welcoming and nurturing, each member has flaws of character the same as other people have.  Just because we go to church seeking perfection doesn’t mean we’ve attained it; the quest is lifelong.  As someone has well put it, “A church is not a haven for saints; it’s a hospital for sick souls.”
¶The new disciple can find her community only if she reciprocates in the welcoming and nurturing.  Although, to those who have never tried them, welcoming and nurturing may at first seem burdensome, the disciple quickly finds that joy and gratitude are the true recompense for the effort expended.
Relevance — Several years ago, ABC’s Peter Jennings reported of the Yuppie generation’s cynical attitude toward the church:  “They complain that it’s boring, irrelevant, and money-grubbing,” he said.  The churches that were growing, Jennings reported, were the mega-churches which offered programs little different from what might be found in a shopping mall or a country club…with child care added.  And these new churches were offering worship as a multi-media event complete with semi-professional actors and musicians and colored lights.
¶And the message?  The message of the gospel?  It was “feel good”!  In a new rendering of the old 19th century “gospel of wealth”, the assurance of the Good Book was that, in God’s eye, you didn’t earn that Mercedes Benz.  God provided it for you because you deserved it.  But that was years ago.
¶The majority of newcomers to a church today are young marrieds with children.  They say they want their children to receive a good grounding in moral values and community involvement.  They might prefer that they could leave their children in a Sunday school class and go home to their TV football game, but a sense of fairness and decency will not allow them to do that.  So they go to a service and maybe even to a Sunday school.  Let’s begin with the Sunday school and surmise what they hope they will find there.
¶Of course! It’s relevance!  They might be surprised that it’s not a discussion of whether a man can survive being swallowed by a whale or how many wise men actually went to the manger, but instead a discussion of how Christian ideals can be practiced in a secular and mechanistic world on Monday, Tuesday, etc.  Or they might encounter a discussion of particular women of the Bible compared to particular women today. They might find that Christianity is not encased in a 19th century mold.
¶And in the church service, they might find newer songs, different instruments.  They might find a sermon filled more with insight and love than with fire and brimstone.  They might find a balance between the vertical God-human relationship and the horizontal human-human relationship. And above all they might find a renewed sense of values that they can take home with them and share with fellow workers during the week.
Mission  That brings us to the final expectation disciples hold of their church.  They want to go out into the broader secular world and make a positive difference. They come into the church to be spiritually filled and go into the world to empty themselves spiritually.  As the Twelve Step programs put it so succinctly: “The only way to keep it is to give it away.”
¶Our people have expressed over and over again their desire to act outside the local church community.  We have done many kindnesses one to another and contributed, at times sacrificially, for our “little church in the wild wood”. Routinely, we have contributed financially to the community beyond us.  And occasionally we have given of our time and energy to that broader community.  Yet somehow we feel as though we have “hung back” like a shy suitor.  It seems that, considering who we are and what we have, both materially and spiritually, we should be making a more significant impact on the world around us.
¶This impulse may be dangerous because it could be simply the symptom of hungry pride.  Perhaps our contribution may be larger than we imagine; perhaps it is so diffuse and anonymous that notice of it escapes even us.  But in fact, what we want to do is something large, physical and together.  What we want is a sense of focused mission and to encounter that mission as a total church community, not simply as individuals or small committees.
¶That is where leadership comes in.  A true leader is someone who can discern and define the aspirations of a people and then mold and direct those aspirations toward a goal that is realistic, attainable and worthwhile.
¶Our church is in a period of maturation right now, much in the same way that our country is struggling toward maturity.  Won’t you come and help us grow?

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What does the Church expect of its Disciples?

Prayers — The Discipline of the United Methodist Church specifies four things the church expects from its disciples: prayers, presence, gifts and service.  The purpose of this pamphlet is to relate to you what we mean by each of those support elements in this local church.  In another pamphlet we discuss what this church has to offer disciples.
¶Each Sunday at the end of the pastoral prayer, our minister and individuals in the audience add brief prayers for specific persons and groups.  Whoever initiates the mini-prayer introduces it as either “a prayer of concern” (intercessory) or “a prayer of gratitude” (thanksgiving).  After each of these mini­-prayers the pastor pauses a few moments to let the congregation add their own silent, individual prayers.  Then he says “Lord, in your mercy…”, and the congregation completes the sentence with “…hear our prayer.”  There are several varieties of prayer.  We haven’t space to discuss all of them here.  Three types of prayer—petition, intercession, thanksgiving—are the ones with which most of us are acquainted.  At our church, we find occasion for all of them.  However, the prayers most frequently used by us as a community are “intercession” and “thanksgiving”.
¶But praying doesn’t cease when we leave the sanctuary.  We try to adhere to St. Paul’s injunction: “Pray unceasingly.”   By that, we do not mean spending all our time on our knees.  No, we interpret “pray unceasingly” in three other ways:
¶Firstly, it means keeping our souls and minds receptive of the Holy Spirit’s nudging; as a result, we often find ourselves praying brief, spontaneous, even involuntary prayers (what Richard Foster has called “popcorn prayers”) at any time, any place. These happen when the Holy Spirit prays within us for us. Many of these prayers are for ourselves, of course, but also many are for the church community.
¶We don’t really need experiential proof of prayer’s efficacy to persuade us to pray.  What is necessary is a feeling of great and genuine spiritual need and a sense of our own inability to satisfy that need.  Even the hardest-shelled atheist, under certain conditions, will find himself praying, as is witnessed by the so-called “foxhole prayers” of our various wars.
¶Secondly, “unceasing prayer” means keeping one’s mind centered on spiritual things, constantly realizing that we are not of this world even though we are in this world.
¶Thirdly, it means making of our lives a prayer, in other words, a life well-­lived glorifies God and sends up “a fragrant sacrifice most pleasing to him.”
¶All we believers need for motivation is love and faith.  True, even for us God sometimes says “no”, or his idea of what we need doesn’t always jibe with ours.  In other words, he gives us what we need rather than what we want.  Jesus articulated that reality when he prayed at Gethsemane, “Let this cup pass from me … but nevertheless not my will but thy will be done.”
¶Prayer doesn’t come easily for most of us, but with continual practice it gets easier—just like any other worthwhile endeavor. The more we practice it, the more natural it becomes for us.  Prayer indeed is the least demanding responsibility  the church expects of its disciples.
Presence — Primarilypresence means regular attendance at corporate worship services and, especially, active  participation in those services.  Some Christians speak of  the local congregation as  “thecorporate church” and of the larger community as “the scattered church”.  This latter includes district and annual conferences away from the home church.  The former includes the annual charge conference and committee meetings at the local level as well as the regular, weekly worship service.  The church is governed through such meetings, and as many disciples as can should take part in that governing, Sometimes, also, we join other congregations for a special service.  For instance, each Thanksgiving, Cochran Chapel and the Church of  South India combine for worship.
Gifts — There’s a saying: “God provides food for the birds, but he doesn’t put it in their nests.” Yet it truly is amazing how many people think the church simply grows like a plant out of the ground. Yes, we take up an offering.  The offertory is an important part of each service.  It constitutes our return to God of a portion of the bounty with which he has blessed us.
¶It would be nice if everyone tithed. Not everybody is that well off, however.  All we expect is that each disciple give according to his or her capability.  No one here expects anyone else to give so much to the church that they jeopardize their own family’s well­-being, but it is better for the individual disciple’s spiritual and emotional health to “give until it hurts.”
How much is that?
¶Some people have so much and give so little that they don’t even realize they are giving. They should give until it grabs their attention.
Where does the money go?
¶Part of it pays for the utilities, supplies, upkeep and salaries at this local church (General Fund).  Another part, when so specified by the giver, is used to pay for construction of new facilities or for structural repairs and renovations on this campus (Building Fund).  And then there is what the Methodist Church calls “apportionments”, a kind of  denominational tax, based on membership head count, which we as a congregation contribute to the church’s mission elsewhere in this nation—and on this planet.
¶Each of these contribution targets is separate and requires an indication from the giver as to the fund for which the money is intended.  The giver can either use a different envelope for each contribution or write on a single envelope the fund—or funds—for which all or each part of it is intended.
¶Also, once a month when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, partakers are invited to leave at the altar rail a small gift for some special charity.  And about three months of the year our church is asked to be responsible for the lion’s share of food and toiletry items gathered for North Dallas Shared Ministries.
Service — Locally, we are always looking for volunteers to teach Sunday school at least one quarter of the year. The laity also help during the service as liturgists, ushers, choir members, and servers of Holy Communion.  We also have Saturday work days periodically when disciples—those who are willing and physically able—renovate rooms in one of the buildings or improve the Children’s Center playground.
¶From a certain vantage point, Gifts and Service are really indistinguishable. Above, we spoke of gifts as what we give to the church by way of financial support.  But there is also the way of giving through service, both at the local church level and in the mission field.  By  “mission field”  we mean community projects such as North Dallas Shared Ministries and Habitat For Humanity as well as foreign missions—in other words, the Kingdom of God beyond the borders of our tiny church.
¶In the wider community, some disciples help a few hours each week with North Dallas Shared Ministries or the Wesley-Rankin Center in West Dallas.  In the past, those of us who were young enough and apt enough have rehabilitated a house in disrepair.  A group of ladies in the congregation visit the ill who are hospitalized or home-bound each week.  Some classes have adopted a family for Christmas who otherwise would not have had any Christmas.  But, to be honest about it, some of us feel we have not done as much as we ought to improve the wider community—not on a concerted basis at any rate.  Recently, we have awakened to that remissness and are planning community service projects in home renovation and tutoring for the near future.
¶We hope you will be touched by the Holy Spirit and join us in these endeavors.  If you would like to have more information on how you can participate, contact the church office.
—May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you.

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
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¶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.

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

Finis

Two Antique Sonnets and a Joke

©1960 By Bob Litton

PREFACE:  Gentle readers, how about a little back story:

The first poem, “Tannhaüser in the Underworld”, I wrote after listening to an LP album of Richard Wagner’s romantic music drama Tannhaüser. If you are not acquainted with that work, or at least the story, you might get more out of my poem by reading a synopsis of it, but I wouldn’t count on it. Basically, Tannhaüser was a legendary poet-singer who, in Wagner’s version, has a problem coping with his dual nature: the sensual and the spiritual.

The second sonnet, “Dear Christmas Spirit”, is obviously patterned after “letters-to-Santa”; but it’s a serious imitation. I had just been reading much of the British Metaphysicals’poetry (John Donne, etal.) and their style is slightly reflected in my verse here.

As for “Eclogue”, it is simply a small dessert of amusement. I had noticed one day that I had a habit of wondering what or who I might be if I were not me; I suppose the question must have been generated upon my hearing that many people believe in reincarnation. The “borogove” and the “tove” are fantasy creatures I borrowed from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Tannhaüser in the Underworld

Behold this change in me, fair Queen of the wood!
How my wild renunciation of Love fades
and flees before the glow of your semblant rood,
how I blush amid the laughter of your maids.
Whether you be lusty Venus, full of guile and fire ─
or fair, chaste Elizabeth, lost in a darker green —
I know not, but know only this scarlet stab of desire
which long night watches and prayers failed to wean.
You’ve led me benighted to this mountain’s cave,
toward what end I hopefully, fearfully surmise,
for it confounds my vision as both boudoir and grave;
so I dare do  naught but expect the lover’s prize.
What omen that me these contrary thoughts enthrall,
while all about —  as if Heaven cared! — stars do fall?

Dear Christmas Spirit

Bring me Faith which can change but not diminish,
though I walk Job’s way beneath a sleeting sky.
Grant me Strength still innocent of a mocking wish
that someone else my life might justify.
Tote also Hope in your burdening, sooty bag,
something I might wear against the damp’s return,
when the wax wick splutters above the chimney’s slag,
and these rimy logs are too frozen to burn.
But leave those behind if they leave not room
for Charity.  Least flesh needs the warmest soul,
knit to another like a child in the womb;
nor does it pause before Life, its sleeves to roll.
If you grant all these to my selfish cheer,
with others I’ll share them throughout next year. 

Eclogue

Quizzed a borogove within the tree:
“What would I be if I were not me?”
A tiny tove by the dial replied,
“You need not be so satisfied!”

Finis

Faith

©1995 By Bob Litton; ©2012 By Bob Litton

Mr. Fortuna’s house was in that sociological limbo between city and country where the inhabitants were too urbane to plant acres of land in cotton or corn for profit and too rural to support a shopping center.  All the homes were set back from the road nearly an acre, and the asphalt road that led up to the bridge over his creek was lined with mail boxes, their small red pennants angled acutely.  Off to the northeast one could dimly see through the morning’s haze the city’s rectangular peaks; and to the southwest, where the foothills steepened, the real country of sprouting fields and oases of barns.

The people who lived around Mr. Fortuna’s “house-on-the-creek” took what they thought was the best from both worlds.  They commuted to the city and got good pay (they said) for whatever they did there.  When they came home in the evening, they milked their cows or rode their ponies or plucked eggs from their hens’ nests or tended to their little patches of wired-in gardens.  To the pale-skinned, weekend visitors from the city of Cibola they exhibited their rosy, plump progeny.  In front of the occasional farmer from the steep hills, come to trade his produce off at their open-air market next to the community center, they assumed their most preoccupied air, became citified, and spoke diffidently to him of the fortunes they were slowly amassing from their occupations in Cibola.

Mr. Fortuna did none of these things.  He had no fami­ly, no chickens, no ponies, no cows, no visitors from Cibola or from the steep hill country.  One shouldn’t suppose, though, that he was a recluse or even that he was eccentric.  Many of his neighbors, however, regularly described him as such in order to enhance the romantic aura of their little community at the same time they exhibited their own psycho­logical acuity.

Mr. Fortuna seldom ventured any further away from his home than the front porch.  And even when he did, it was usually only to pump water from the well that stood in all its radiant rustiness a few yards to the morning side of the house.  He had had polio in his youth and, though it had not completely disabled him, it had made any such activity as strolling up to the road a tiresome chore even to contem­plate.  He sat, most of the time, in a cushioned wicker chair on his front porch and waved at passersby in the road.  Sometimes a neighbor would pause a few moments and yell a few words of local news or pure time-o’-day.  If what the person had to say intrigued Mr. Fortuna and if the stroller had time to spare from his perambulations, Mr. Fortuna would invite him up to the porch for details.

Nor was Mr. Fortuna indifferent to animals.  Though he kept no farm animals such as his neighbors all sported, he did have a dog—an old pit bull terrier with a homely, humorless face.  The dog would lie on the porch beside the wicker chair and gaze morosely toward the road, its wrin­kled, brown lips fanning out on the hardwood boards between two forepaws.  Frequently the dog would fall over onto its side, stretch out all four legs, and yawn.  No one in the community knew the dog’s name, if it even had a name, for they never heard Mr. Fortuna call it.  Whenever anyone had occasion to refer to it, he or she did so by calling it “that ol’ dog” or “Ol’ Fortuna’s dog”.

This pit bull was the only one of its kind in the neighborhood and had, by its innate apathy, aroused little curiosity among the neighbors.  It didn’t appear to be capable of learning tricks or in­clined to run rabbits.  Like the rest of its breed, it was surpassingly muscular, but how it maintained its sturdy condition in light of its habitual laziness was a paradox.  Mr. Fortuna fed it half a pound of ground meat and one egg per day.  Consequently, even in its old age it had a glossy brown coat.  Its remaining physical peculiarity was one rear leg which was white from hock to paw.

One spring morning when Mr. Fortuna was sitting in his wicker chair with his dog lying on the porch by his side, old Liz Hubing came walking up the gravel driveway. She didn’t yell “hello” first as custom required or wait for him to invite her, a sure sign she was in an irritable mood.  She strode up, carrying her eighty-pound frame as though she were a lance tipped forward in attack position.

“Hello, Liz,” said Mr. Fortuna in a low conciliatory tone, for, though a large man, he was really as meek as Moses.  “What you so fired-up-looking about this morning?”

“That durn dog of yours, that’s what!” she said, her brow dipping in the middle like a waning moon.  “That dog killed two of my chickens last night.”

“Oh come now!  You know it couldn’t have been my dog.  I’ve had him for years and he ain’t ever done such a thing as that.”

“I don’t care what he ain’t done before.  Last night he bit the necks of two of my Rhode Island hens plumb in two.  I heard’em squawking clear from inside my kitchen and I went out to the hen house and I saw that durn dog of yours skit­tering under the fence wire.  He’s a mad dog, I tell you, and he ought to be done away with.”

“Since it was night, how do you know it wasn’t some other dog?”

“Cause your dog’s the biggest around here, and I saw that other one was big, too, even if I couldn’t see much else about him.  And I seen that one white foot, too, while he was skedaddling.”

Mr. Fortuna looked inquiringly down at his pit bull, which lay quite still with its nose between his forepaws.  It was still, but not asleep.  It watched the angry ejacula­tions of Liz Hubing with its dark, wet eyes as though it were observing the gradually depleting energy of a wound-up doll.

“Well, old fella, what do you say to that?  You been messing around with Liz’s hens?”

The dog raised its eyes, but not its head, to meet Mr. Fortuna’s distressed gaze.  Then it returned its attention to Liz Hubing.

“Whach’a asking that dog for?  He can’t talk, and I told you already I seen it.  Don’t you believe me?”

Mr. Fortuna reached inside his baggy cotton suit coat that belonged to another pair of pants and withdrew his checkbook.

“How much will you settle for, Mrs. Hubing?” he asked.

Liz Hubing had not anticipated this outcome.  She didn’t really know how much her hens were worth.  Her single objective had been revenge on the dog, not remuneration for her murdered fowl.  She considered the question in a discon­certed way.

After a lengthy pause, Mr. Fortuna asked, “How about twenty dollars for both?”  He filled out a check as he spoke.

After he gave her the check, she looked at it, folded it in half, and put it curtly into her apron pocket.  Then she glared again at the dog.  “But I still think that mad beast ought to be done away with!” she exclaimed, turning away.

That was the beginning. From that day, Mr. Fortuna was the recipient of complaints, charges that his old, lazy dog was terrorizing the neighborhood’s animal population in the deep hours of the night.  Some people came in person, but most phoned him and in angry terms demanded recompense or revenge.  Some threatened to kill the dog themselves.

Mr. Fortuna couldn’t believe that his dog would do such things as were reported to him, and he refused to pen the creature in or chain him to a stake.  “My dog has always been free,” he told Bill Sackley, the sheriff’s deputy, who came to suggest—and finally to demand—that Mr. Fortuna do just that.

“No sir!” Mr. Fortuna told him emphatically.  “It would destroy him to tie him up or confine him.  It would be a breach of faith.  Besides that, it would be absurd—that dog, who’s on his feet hardly an hour in the day, locked up or chained.  Can’t you see how peaceful he is?”

“I’ll concede he don’t look like no Jack the Ripper,” replied Bill, shaking his head in perplexity.  “Still, he’s the only dog around here that’s even potentially capable of the damage that’s been done.  I’ll have to ask you to find some manner of confining him.”

In spite of the fact that Mr. Fortuna never called his dog any particular name or showed outwardly any degree of affection, it was nevertheless true that the dog held a claim on a good part of the old man’s soul.  Lying on the porch beside him as it did day after day, the dog had become an extension of himself.  Although he had not given much thought to this affinity before (since it had not been threatened before), now he found that any complaint or threat against the dog was indissolubly and completely a complaint or threat against himself.  He shuddered every time he looked the dog’s way.

For several weeks there was a lull in reports of any dog attacking his neighbors’ animals.  Mr. Fortuna began to believe that the epidemic must be over and things would be normal again and he would still have his dog.  It was true that the neighbors did not wave as they passed along the road and across the bridge that extended over his portion of the creek, but that was all right.  They were just people, and people took a longer time forgetting an injury than did animals.  They would eventually cool down and stop to utter some brief, quiet greeting again.  And then one day they would even come up to the porch and exchange a joke or two.

Then, just when Mr. Fortuna had begun to think that the nightmare was all over, Mrs. Montrose, who lived two blocks up the road, came stumbling into his yard carrying her daughter’s pet lamb in her arms.  Its bloody head drooped to one side.  Behind her, red-faced and in tears, came her ten-year-old daughter, Ruth.

“Look, Mister Fortuna!” screamed Mrs. Montrose.  “Look what your dog’s done now!  See this dead lamb, Mister Fortuna?  See its bleeding neck?  It’s dead!  Your dog done it.  Your dog killed Ruth’s lamb!”

Mr. Fortuna’s throat felt as though he had swallowed a cup of stale coffee in one gulp.  All the other victims of the mysterious attacks had been invisible creatures to him—reports of invisible creatures—but here was one in the flesh complete with white wool clotted with dark red blood.  He did not reach into his pocket for the checkbook this time.  Nor did he look at the dog.

“I’ll take care of it,” Mr. Fortuna whispered, realiz­ing immediately how irrelevant and absurd his comment must seem to Mrs. Montrose and her daughter.

    “You’ll take care of it?  How? Mister Fortuna, this lamb is dead!  There ain’t nothing anyone can do for it now. Your dog is a good hunter, Mister Fortuna, a good hunter.  You should enjoy the kill.  Here.”  She laid the lamb on the porch step.

“What do you want from me, Missus Montrose?”

“Nothing,” she murmured, as she turned and walked away, with her daughter under her arm, crying. “Nothing, nothing.”

Mr. Fortuna sat gazing at the dead lamb on the porch step.  When the flies began to buzz around its head, he stood up.  Taking up his cane, he hobbled out to the tool shed at the side of the house.  He went into the open shed and pulled down a shovel that hung against a wall.  Near the steps of the porch he began to dig in the soft earth. After several hours of what for him was painful labor he had a hole deep enough for the lamb.  He wrapped it up in a potato sack and lowered it into the hole and then slowly covered it with earth.  He left the shovel by the grave and hobbled back onto the porch, mopping his brow with his white hand­kerchief.

The dog still lay on the porch. Its eyes, turned up to Mr. Fortuna, expressed an indecipherable question.  Mr. Fortuna looked gloomily at him.  “There are others,” he said.

Mr. Fortuna went into the house and came back a minute later carrying a .22 rifle, a weapon he had not fired since he was a much younger man and he was not sure it would fire on this occasion.  The dog was sitting up on its haunches, moving its soporific head in whatever direction Mr. Fortuna moved.

The old man, after walking out upon the lawn, aimed his rifle at the pit bull terrier’s head and fired.  He hobbled back to the porch, grabbed hold of the two rear legs of the bloody hairy mass that used to be his dog and dragged it out to the middle of the drive.  He left it there and returned to the porch.

A young couple passing by that afternoon on their exercise walk saw the dog lying in the driveway.  And they saw Mr. Fortuna sitting on the porch with the .22 rifle supporting his head.

Nobody reported any strange attacks on their animals after that.  About three weeks later, however, a propane truck driver stopped by the local service station and told about how he had seen a hybrid red wolf-coyote hanging from a fence gate post beside a seldom used county road.  “Looked as though it might have been killed in a fight with another animal,” the truck driver said.

Next day, at the local coffee shop, Liz Hubing came up to where Bill Sackley was sitting with some of her neigh­bors.  She was twisting a small white handkerchief.  “Bill,” she said.  “I feel awful upset.  Time has passed and with it my certainty about what I saw.  You know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I know what you’re talking about,” Bill replied.

“Do you think it mighta been that wolf-coyote all the time?”

“Don’t know.  I never saw anything but the after-ef­fects.  Maybe it was whatever killed the wolf-coyote.  They’re kind of rare but they obviously ain’t extinct around here yet.”

“Guess we’ll never know for sure, will we?”

“Nope.  We’ll never know for sure.”

Finis

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