Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Spiritual Weightlifting or the Quiet Inner Light

I am a channel surfer, and what guy isn’t! Commercials signal me that it is time to check the score of the other game, catch a glimpse of the modern marvel that is the world’s biggest bubble gum manufacturer, or take in a two minute scene from The Godfather. There are only a few commercials that can hold my attention. I used to love “Does a former drill sergeant make a terrible therapist,” but it is no longer being aired. My current favorite is “Apparently, riding the dog like it is a horse is frowned upon in this establishment.”

Another commercial that always takes me into its world is the one where a bystander observes someone do something thoughtful for another person; something like holding the door for a blind person. That bystander, moved and motivated by what she has witnessed, is somehow changed and becomes more attuned to the people around her. She then does something small, but thoughtful for a stranger. This act is observed by another bystander who is affected by seeing it, and the process repeats itself again and again and again.

I like that commercial because it builds on the belief that beneath all that is dark and dreary and damaged in this world a fundamental goodness holds sway. Listen to this insight in John O’Donohue’s book, To Bless the Space between Us:

There is a kindness that dwells deep down in the structure of things; it presides everywhere, often in places we least expect. The world can be harsh and negative, but if we remain generous and patient, kindness inevitably reveals itself. Something deep in the human soul seems to depend on the presence of kindness; something instinctive in us expects it, and once we sense it we are able to trust and open ourselves.

I hear O’Donohue’s words as being a faint echo of Jesus’ thundering proclamation that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself; one implication, one manifestation of how we live into God’s highest intention for all God’s human creation.

As I meditated on today’s Gospel reading began to see how I have always imagined the idea of loving God with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind, and (as Luke records it) with all my strength as being something akin to spiritual weightlifting; in other words, if I can bench press 200 spiritual pounds today, then tomorrow I should try to press 205. The day after that I need to go for 210. The process is never ending because the ultimate goal of perfect love toward God and neighbor can never be achieved. All - as in all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength - all is a very daunting word, isn’t it. It suggests that observing this command involves effort and rigor and determination and dedication and... failure.

I began to wonder what if fulfilling the command to love involves not trying harder and harder, but rather letting go and listening and allowing yourself to be carried away in God’s goodness that undergirds all things?

O’Donohue begins his book by writing this:

There is a quiet light that shines in every heart. It draws no attention to itself, though it is always secretly there. It is what illuminates our minds to see beauty, our desire to seek possibility, and our hearts to love life. Without this subtle quickening our days would be empty and wearisome, and no horizon would ever awaken longing. Our passion for life is quietly sustained from somewhere in us that is wedded to the energy and excitement of life. This shy inner light is what enables us to recognize our very presence here as blessing.

Something in his words resonates with me and it hints that loving God heart, soul, mind, and strength has more to do with the shy, inner light than it does with spiritual weightlifting. If the creation is God’s work, and if God called it good, and if God is omnipresent (found in all times, all places, and all things), then being attentive to our quiet, inner light - that part of our heart which allows us to connect with the richness of life - is at the heart of what it means to love God. It suggests that reveling in the beauty of a gorgeous fall day is an act of loving God more significant than something like, say, memorizing the books of the bible in order.

And it suggests that loving our neighbor as ourselves is not so much an act of effort on our part, but something more akin to becoming open to the possibilities for kindness that exist all around us. In a passage reminiscent of how Paul describes the gift of love, O’Donohue writes about the nature of kindness:

[It] has gracious eyes; it is not small-minded or competitive; it wants nothing back for itself. Kindness strikes a resonance with the depths of your own heart; it also suggests that your vulnerability, though somehow exposed, is not taken advantage of; rather, it has become an occasion for dignity and empathy. Kindness casts a different light, an evening light that has the depth of color and patience to illuminate what is complex and rich in difference.

As that commercial suggests, kindness begets kindness and the blessing we offer to another has a way of returning back to us as blessing.

We use the word ‘kind’ to signify two different things. It can mean “doing good rather than harm” or it can mean “a class, sort, or variety,” as in “my kind of people.” It is closely related to the word “kin” and “kindness” itself is derived from the word “kinship.” To be kind is to see another as kin and to show kindness is to treat a person like family. When Jesus commands us to love our neighbor he is asking us to do more than to be kind to our kind. He is, as O’Donohue puts it, directing us to “illuminate what is complex and rich in difference.”

Those of us who have been able to stop by St. Paul’s on Monday evenings in October have been deeply affected by the ministry of our Food Pantry and the various distributions of shoes, sweaters, and coats of the past few weeks. It is the clients themselves who have touched us with their joy, their gratitude, and their words of kindness. “Bless you” is perhaps the most common phrase uttered in the Parish Hall from 5:00 to 6:30 on Monday nights.

It would be a mistake to think of these give always as being simple acts of charity. They are far more complex than doing a good deed or ‘helping our fellow man.’ There is something richer and deeper at work; something that taps into God’s intention for life. The kindness goes both ways. Blessings offered become blessings extended. No one is lifting 205 spiritual pounds, rather we are tapping into something that exists beyond us and yet is all around us. We are discovering anew, if even in a small and limited way, God’s love which permeates all things.

During the week clergy friends will often post on facebook thoughts and questions about the upcoming readings. “Is anyone else having trouble figuring out how to preach these lessons” is not uncommon. This week a priest responded to such an inquiry by saying he was going to preach how the gospel directs us to love our enemies. I believe this is a legitimate implication of the greatest commandment, but it struck me as awfully daunting weight to press. Let’s start somewhere else. Let’s start with the belief that there is something inside us, something O’Donohue describes as a quiet inner light, that always responds to something God is doing in this world. It responds to beauty, to desire, and to possibility. It offers kindness and blessing. Nurture that light and you will be well on your way to living into love for God and love for your neighbor.