It is now August, and a new academic year will soon begin across colleges and universities. Summer vacation brought some relief to those who gathered with family and friends. Yet, all is not well. We are walking on a pandemic landmine. The ambiguity around mandatory vaccines, the resistance of pandemic gainsayers, and the constant newsfeeds full of conflicting reports has given rise to an atmosphere of super-anxious, fearful people. Coupled with the pandemic pandemonium is the frightening rise of global warming and its ensuing consequences, including massive fires, heat waves and drought. For all our higher education, we are doing very poorly on planet earth.
Recently, I spent some time at a cabin in the woods of Pennsylvania with some friends. The cabin was about 500 square feet with no television or internet; however, it sat above a rolling creek of singing water. Each morning we gathered on the back deck to sit quietly and listen to the gurgling water spilling over the rocks, while the herons and other birds soared in flight. We did nothing more than simply be, but in those moments of being, life exuberated joy and goodness all around us. Only in silence and stillness can we realize that matter is spirit, moving slowly enough to be seen.
Vacation is a good word, from the Latin, vacare, to empty out. We need a type of enduring vacation because, in truth, we are killing ourselves and the beautiful planet that sustains us. As the earth suffers, God suffers, a suffering divine love that bears the pain of our wounded earth. A suffering God is a God of infinite love, a love that endures through death into new life. Such is the power of divine love. To know this God of infinite love, however, is also to know ourselves. And to know ourselves, we must stop running headless around the world. We are killing the earth because we ourselves are partially dead, inert, pretending to be alive. Aliveness is not measured by what we do, or how many breaths we take; the fullness of life is measured by what takes our breath away.
The fullness of life is a paradox, as many mystics realized. What seems full is empty, what seems empty is full; what seems light is dark, and what seems dark is light. On August 11th we celebrated the feast of Clare of Assisi (d. 1253), a medieval woman, a co-founder of the Franciscan movement, a woman who resisted the power of prevailing Popes and who dedicated her life to the paradox of God’s love. Writing to Agnes of Prague, a woman she never met but wrote to as “half her soul,” she said: “If you die with Him, you shall reign with Him” (2 Lett 21) and “transform your whole being into the image of the Godhead itself through contemplation” (3 Lett 13). How do we understand these insights in our own time?
First, we must let go and stop doing as if we are gods. To stop doing is to be, and to be is to do in a deeper way. Let God be love for you in the everyday things of the world, the trees, the sun, the neighbor, the small stone by the side of the road. Let yourself be loved, and from this center of love, extend who you are into another, so that you and the other are not billiard balls bumping into one another but little centers of love seeking to become greater wholes in love. If we continue to act on the world as an object of our power, we will destroy it; the only way to change the world is to change ourselves. To change oneself does not require a program or a method or a purchase on Amazon. We are invited, rather, to sit quietly, let go of everything we store in our minds and hearts; then we are to welcome into our being, the being of the grass, the metal of the car, the wood of the desk, the fur of a cat. Let yourself be loved by all of these because each is a little center of God’s love seeking to grow in love, to love and be loved. When love begins to spill over from your life then get up and walk the streets because something or someone unloved is waiting for you. There is so much to do by staying still in love.
We must slow down and learn the art of un-doing. What is not accomplished today will hold new potential for tomorrow. Today is our future; tomorrow is our hope; love is our now. We can change the world by never moving from a place of rest, simply being our truest selves, living in the freedom of our own skin, loving the good of our own lives. Did you ever see a grove of trees vying one another for space or scrambling their roots back and forth to claim their turf? Trees stand tall and still because their inner lives are filled with dynamic energies of aliveness, communicating quietly in the deep tunnels of their interconnectedness, saying to one another, “I am here for you.” Trees begin to sway and react when the winds grow violent, or they can whither when the earth becomes parched. On its own, a tree does nothing more than be a tree and in being a tree, gives glory to God. We must be like the trees, content with the incompleteness and ambiguity of not knowing what the next moment will bring, because we are alive and free in our own beingness.
I hope you see my point. Looking into the pandemic mirror, we are not going to make it far into the future, as we are. Of course, we will continue to discover new things, biomedical breakthroughs, new planets, new technologies, but the earth may not cooperate with our deified wills. We need days, perhaps weeks, of undoing. This is the hardest thing for us to do, as we saw in the recent global shutdown. We insist on doing things our way, what we consider to be “normal”. We truly are the silliest of all species; Jesus might have said “blind fools.” Perhaps if schools close their doors again, we might sit quietly on a porch and listen to what nature teaches us about life. We might hear the words: “I have loved you with an everlasting love” and I will remain faithful to you, if you do not try to destroy me.