Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

Melancholia and the one percent solution

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I was driving home recently…listening to a piece of music called ‘Melancholia’…a somewhat new age adaptation of the familiar folk song Greensleeves…streaming into my car via a satellite hovering above in low earth orbit. While listening to this ageless tune, it occurred to me that this melody had originated in someone’s mind hundreds of years ago. Some melancholy moment of reflection upon an unrequited love, perhaps. How tenuous that slender and fragile thought in its beginnings that, nevertheless, survived and made a remarkable journey far into the future to touch my thoughts and spin me into a reverie. It made me think about how the past still exerts tangible power over us…whether or not we’re aware of it. We like to think that our thoughts are original…that they originate with who we are…or who we think we are.

This past week…my sense of self-identity was forever changed. A few weeks ago…on a whim…I sent in a sample of my DNA to be tested through the Ancestry DNA program of By comparing and matching my DNA with countless other samples they were going to tell me where I came from. I wasn’t expecting any surprises…and it didn’t shock me when I received the results this week, revealing that I was 99% Eastern European (Polish, to be exact) in origin. In fact, the typical native of that region in Europe logged in at 82%…so it appeared I was even more native than the natives. What did take my breath away momentarily…was the remaining one percent. That one percent of my DNA was consistent with natives of Ireland. I already knew that at some point in the distant past, there had been migrations of Celtic peoples to areas throughout Europe, including southern Poland where my grandparents were from. So…this revelation that my bloodline…however small a part it might be…could be tied to those ancient Celtic peoples that roamed the continent, and stretched back in time to the Emerald Isle itself…was simply astonishing.

What makes us who we are? We like to think that we have the bigger hand in how our lives are shaped. But is this really true? The very thought that the actions of two people (among many, many others)…thousands of years ago in the neolithic period on an island at the edge of a vast sea…were instrumental in my even being here…is simply humbling.  Beside the physical connection…what other tenuous thoughts and feelings have filtered down through the ages to shape me into who I am? Do they account for the fact that the writings of John O’Donohue resonate in my soul? That I love the story of the Tuatha de Danann…a mythical Irish people who, when standing face-to-face with an invading army, turned sideways into the light and disappeared? Who knows. At the very least, it may offer some explanation for the rather illogical and somewhat magnetic attraction I have to the music of Enya…

Turn sideways into the light as they say
the old ones did and disappear
into the originality of it all.
Be impatient with easy explanations
and teach that part of the mind
that wants to know everything
not to begin questions it cannot answer.
~ David Whyte, Tobar Phadraic


Written by Jim

August 5, 2015 at 7:46 pm

Grief is not a feeling

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“Grief’s not how you feel. Grief’s what you do. Grief is a skill. And the twin of grief, as a skill of life, is the skill of being able to praise, or love, life. Which means wherever you find one authentically done, the other is very close at hand. Grief, and the praise of life, side by side, the honored guests…and they’re toasting you. Grief…and the ability to love life…they’re clinking their glasses and toasting the living. So here’s to your health. Until the time comes we come to get you…live well!”

~ Stephen Jenkinson, Griefwalker

I came across this beautiful and moving quote  while recently watching Tim Wilson’s documentary film entitled Griefwalker, about Stephen Jenkinson, a Harvard-trained theologian and former program director of palliative care at a major Canadian hospital, who has made it his life’s mission, “to change the way that we die.” He says that, “The crucible of making human beings, is death.” That we haven’t fully lived until we’ve experienced and fully embraced death…including our own. I highly recommend taking the time to view the film…which you can see here.

It’s quite thought-provoking…that grief is really a gift. Perhaps the last gift that we receive from someone we love, and lose…but quite possibly the most precious gift that we’ll ever receive…if we’re open to it..if we become skillful at it, as Jenkinson suggests we must. It can enlarge our lives…if we pay close attention…not shrinking from it…but fully embracing it. Grief can teach us to live well.

Written by Jim

October 25, 2014 at 6:53 pm

Early morning visit

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Early this morning…sitting by an open window in the living room…everything outside was shrouded in dense fog. I was being kept company by the sounds of a solemn procession making its way overhead…the subdued and muffled whining and whirring of airplanes as they carefully made their approach into the Queen City to the north. Hundreds of people passing unsuspectingly over the silence and stillness below them.

As I quietly read my book, another procession took place right outside my window. A steady stream of ruby-throated hummingbirds made their way to the feeder that’s hanging out on the porch. When one finished topping off its tanks on the sweet red nectar…another arrived to take its place. While reading, I didn’t even have to look up to know they had  arrived. I could sense their presence just by the humming of their speedy wings…a sound more akin to that of a very large bumble bee.

The feeder has three access ports, disguised as tiny, yellow five-petalled flowers. But, they all draw from the same reservoir that holds the red, sugary substance that the hummers love so much. So, I find it amusing that when each bird visits the feeder, they have to visit each of the three flowers in succession. Since I happened to be reading this morning about different spiritual paths, the birds’ behavior at the feeder seemed an apt metaphor for our own perception that, although we may see our own path as distinctly different from that of others, there is at the heart of each, an underlying unity and commonality.

At one point…taking a break from my reading…I looked out at the feeder, and was met with a very strange sight, something I’d not seen before. There was a solitary hummingbird perched atop the metal support from which the feeder was suspended. Its wings were completely still…its head and long beak moving from side to side in apparent nervousness. Slowly getting up to take a look outside, I noticed a flash of reddish-brown amongst the grasses and shrubs. There was a very tiny deer nibbling on some leafy greens. It was a fawn still speckled with spots…and seemingly all legs. Then I noticed two more deer…yearlings from the look of them. Out of the corner of my eye I saw still more movement by the edge of the woods. It was a mature doe standing guard…mother keeping an eye on the youngsters. The yearlings grazed on grass and foliage for a good twenty minutes. While its older siblings were eating, the little fawn leaped and pranced about, immensely enjoying itself on this fine misty Carolina morning. After a while…at Mom’s beckoning…they all darted off into the woods…but leaving me with a joyful sense of the sheer exhuberance of life…and gratitude for this brief early morning visit.


The further journey

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Once your life has become a constant communion, you know that all the techniques, formulas, sacraments, and practices were just a dress rehearsal for the real thing—life itself—which can actually become a constant intentional prayer. Your conscious and loving existence gives glory to God.

~ Richard Rohr, Falling Upward

I’ve been thinking a lot about what Rohr calls the second half of life…when we finally put aside the task of making it in this life of ours…and concentrate instead on our life itself. The further journey. Early on, we frame our lives with many inessentials. Later on…hopefully…when we really pay attention and learn what is, and what isn’t, important…we may find ourselves in a strange and wonderful land that is quite incomprehensible.

These days…the past is becoming less enticing.  A second…and further journey…still unformed and mysterious…beckons. I’m haunted by the last few lines of Mary Oliver’s beautiful poem, The Summer Day

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

~ Mary Oliver, from The Summer Day

Written by Jim

April 2, 2013 at 7:47 pm

Behind the curtain

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There’s a gauzy, lace-like curtain in the window of my living room. The flowers that are woven into the curtain…while beautiful in and of themselves…obstruct the real view that lies behind the curtain. This morning, I was thinking how they’re a lot like our concepts and constructs of who…or what…we think God is. Some parts of the curtain are almost…but not quite…transparent, and offer a glimpse of the real world beyond. Other parts of the curtain…the interesting bits…like the lacy flowers and leafy vines, are quite opaque, and draw my attention from what lies on the other side.

Sometimes…I like to gaze at the world outside my window through the closed curtain. It hides all the perceived imperfections and rough edges, imparting a soft and comforting warm glow to a world that, at times, can seem anything but completely benign. But at other times, when I’m feeling brave…I’ll draw open the curtains, tying them back on each side of the window with little corded loops…beholding the sometimes overwhelming beauty of an especially fine morning.

Can we know God in this life? How do we go about knowing? Are we gazing at the little flowers and vines on the curtain…because they’re easier to apprehend and understand…our grand systems of thoughts and concepts that hold our attention, while the truth…the only truth…lies waiting in silence behind those wispy patterns that so intrigue us?

Written by Jim

March 9, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Just keep going

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Sometimes, it’s very easy to fall prey to the darkness of this season…and seemingly lose our way but once again. But if we listen carefully, inspiration can be found in unlikely places. I remember reading some poems of Rilke when I was very young. But…at that time…they didn’t have much effect on me. I guess that I just wasn’t ready. I heard this poem of Rilke’s last night, read by Joanna Macy…and it brought me out of the gloom. I’m reminded that everything that happens to us…good and bad…colors us…makes us who we are…or who we are becoming. And we need the courage to just keep going.

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

(translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)

Written by Jim

December 19, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Fearless faith

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After a restless night…frantically searching for ‘misplaced’ people and pets…I awoke in the early morning darkness, once again to the heavenly chorus of the Lux Aeterna.  When I walked through the silent, darkened house…into the kitchen to grab my morning cup of coffee, the room was bathed in moonlight coming in through the windows. The nearly full moon in its descent to the horizon…partially veiled by clouds slowly drifting across the sky.

What Job feared most came upon him (Job 3:25). I’ve been told that the opposite of faith isn’t unbelief…but fear. And that perfect love casts out all fear…and so, engenders faith? And also…that faith is the substance of things hoped for…the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1). Both fear and faith have the power to manifest reality…each in its own way. I have a feeling that we have barely scratched the surface of this teaching…and hardly realized the material effect that both fear and faith have on our lives. Perfect love…that’s the catch.

In this morning’s darkness, even though the sun is hidden, its presence is made known by its light reflecting off that orbiting sphere we call the moon. And it’s comforting to know that soon, the radiance of the sun will overtake the darkness…and a new day will begin.

Written by Jim

November 28, 2012 at 4:51 pm