The Mystics Who Discovered God’s Hiding Place.


St. Julian of Norwich, via Evelyn Simak

At some point in time, how many of us haven’t wondered if God really exists? We may have even echoed the voices of those who have asked God to show us a sign, any sign, that he or she is real—that our prayers aren’t going out into an empty void, that our faith isn’t a sign of some deeply ingrained ignorance.

Yet, history shows that there are those who have made this connection to a greater force, who claim to have not only sensed the presence of God, but who have felt the Divine within themselves, permeating their entire being. They are often labeled mystics and they have been around since the advent of religion.

Mysticism is defined as the knowledge of God that comes from a direct experience of God. So this knowledge is not learned from years of study or by following a specific religious protocol. It is an experience that is felt deeply and convincingly within, sometimes unexpectedly, a vision of something that is far outside the normal experiences of life.

I recently came across a now out-of-print book titled Mysticism, A Study and an Anthology by F.C. Happold, who points out that mystical experiences are common to all religions and that what stands out is not so much the differences in these experiences but their similarities.

In a prologue titled The Timeless Moment, Happold writes of several modern-day mystics he has studied and how through these supernatural experiences the mystic finds “an illumination and certainty which can rarely, if ever, be reached by the rational consciousness.” Two common themes emerge:

  1. A discovery of the unity of all things, or what Happold calls “a consciousness of the oneness of everything, a vision of the One in the All and the All in the One.” It is evidenced by the testimony here: A great peace came over me, I was conscious of a lovely, unexplainable pattern in the whole texture of things, a pattern of which everyone and everything was a part; and weaving the pattern was a Power; and that Power was what we faintly call Love.
  2. The realization that the God we are looking for, and call out to in our times of need, is found within us. Here’s another testimonial via Happold: The room was filled by a Presence, which in a strange way was both about me and within me, like light or warmth. I was overwhelmingly possessed by someone who was not myself, and yet I felt I was more myself than I had ever been before…overall was a deep sense of peace and security and certainty.

The great bulk of Happold’s tome is devoted to the Christian mystics. He highlights over a dozen, spanning both several centuries and several countries. And what again stands out are the similarities of these experiences. I have cherry-picked a few of my favorite writers and passages below:

The French abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux: My curiosity took me to my lowest depth to look for Him, nevertheless, He was found still deeper…he had passed into my inmost parts. Only by the movement of my heart did I recognize his presence.

The philosopher Meister Eckhart (referring to the soul as the feminine “she”): She plunges into the bottomless well of the divine nature and becomes so one with God that she herself would say that she is God…where God is, there is the soul and where the soul is, there is God.

The reclusive nun Julian of Norwich: God is nearer to us than our own Soul; for He is (the) Ground in whom our Soul stands…Our Soul is kindly rooted in God in endless love.

The former-parish priest John of Ruysbroeck: Grace flows from within, and not from without; for God is more inward to us than we are to ourselves. God works in us from within outwards…not from without.

All these different mystics, separated by time and place, in the days before religious texts were widely circulated, come to conclusions that sound surprisingly alike: We are made in the image of God and when we go looking for God, we find what we seek within. It is a stirring call to arms for all of us who seek God in our daily lives—the realization that we should pause each day to locate and engage with the Divine within.

I’ll close with one more passage, from the English priest William Law and a book he wrote in the 1700s titled The Spirit of Prayer. Law believed in what he calls an “indwelling presence” and that heaven is “as near to our souls as this world is to our bodies.” What follows are his lightly edited words (replacing Law’s “thys”, “thous” and “wilts” with modern-day language):

You see, hear and feel nothing of God, because you seek Him outside yourself. You look for Him in books, in the church and outward exercises, but you will not find him until you have found him in your heart. God is already within you, living, stirring, calling, knocking at the door. Look for him in your heart and you will never search in vain, for he lives there.

This story originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, August 25, 2015.

A Priest and an Atheist Walk into a Bar. (A Story about Faith.)

Andrew Marx/

Andrew Marx/

What is the nature of faith? Why do some of us believe that there is a God that watches over us and impacts our lives, while others believe we are alone in the world and left to our own devices?

These are questions I have been pondering since I wrote my last Patheos story on “The Third Man” phenomena. In a nutshell, it was about how certain people in life-threatening situations detect a “presence” around them that they perceive as a guardian angel. I received a few reader comments questioning this assertion, some siding with neuroscientists who believe the effect is not supernatural, but is a function of the brain.

But what does it really come down to? Faith. You either have it or you don’t, and I recently came across an anecdote that cleverly illustrates the issue. It comes the late-author David Foster Wallace in a commencement speech he gave titled This is Water. In it, Foster Wallace tells the tale of two men chatting in a bar, and their different takes on the role God plays in our lives. I’ve paraphrased the story below:

There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. While they’re old friends, they have very different ideas on God—one is a priest and the other is an atheist. They begin arguing about the existence of God.

The atheist says, “Look, it’s not like I haven’t given God a chance. I even tried the prayer thing. It didn’t work.”

The priest asks with some incredulity, “Did you really pray? When did this happen?”

“Just last month,” replies the atheist. “I got caught away from the camp in a terrible blizzard. I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing. It was 50 below, and so I prayed. I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m going to die if you don’t help me’.”

The priest looks at the atheist with a puzzled expression and exclaims, “Well then you must believe in God now. After all, here you are, alive!”

The atheist rolls his eyes and says, “No way, that’s not how it happened. A couple of Eskimos came wandering by and they showed me the way back to camp.”

The same story. Two different perspectives. The priest sees the man’s rescue as an act of divine intervention, while the atheist sees it as sheer happenstance, his own good fortune. Is one point-of-view correct and the other misguided? Or is it possible they both men are correct and that God’s existence is dependent on our belief—if you’re a non-believer, God ceases to exist?

I turned to my spiritual mentor, the late businessman-turned-philosopher John Templeton, for guidance on this issue and found a passage in one of his books that may provide an answer. Templeton believes that spirituality is a personal issue, based on “the unique divine experiences of the individual believer.” He wonders if there isn’t a reason why some believe in a higher power:

Can a person’s consciousness become activated through spiritual practices such as prayer? And can this activation in a person’s consciousness generate greater expressions of spirituality? Could this be what some people describe as “living the spiritual life,” rather than being “religious”?

Perhaps faith is not something we are born with, but something we activate by engaging in practices like prayer and meditation. And those who do these activities on a regular basis find that they are better able to connect with something greater than themselves, a life force that many identify as God.

The atheist did not believe it, but perhaps prayer was the key to his survival in the Alaskan wilderness. Yet, if Templeton’s adage is true, he would need to continue his practice of prayer to make his sense of faith come to life, to become fully receptive to the idea that his encounter with his rescuers on that night was more than just a stroke of good luck.

This story previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 29, 2015.

The “third man” phenomena—proof of guardian angels or something else?

Paul Frances McDonald via

Paul Frances McDonald via

Have you heard the story of “the third man” encountered by Ernest Shackleton during his legendary Antarctic expedition? You may already know the tale of how Shackleton’s boat The Endurance became trapped in the ice and how he and his crew narrowly escaped with their lives—but one fascinating fact that drew less attention was the otherworldly presence that accompanied him during the final leg of his journey.

After a harrowing 800-mile open water voyage, Shackleton and two crewmen then made an exhausting 23-mile trek over ice-covered mountain ranges to reach a British whaling station on the island of South Georgia. In his memoir, Shackleton reported that he and his two traveling companions were joined by a fourth person—an “unseen presence”:

I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.’ Crean confessed to the same idea.

While Shackleton later referred to this presence as his “divine companion”, in other circles the phenomenon became known as the third man. And when I read The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible by John Geiger, I discovered that this presence has been encountered countless times, on land and at sea, by men and women who were in crisis situations and facing the real possibility of death.

Geiger has uncovered over 100 instances where those in duress have been accompanied by the “presence of some ineffable good”. Sometimes plainly visible, sometimes off in the shadows, sometimes talking, sometimes silent, the presence has been perceived as a ghost-like apparition, a guardian angel or a visitor from another realm. The author recounts how the stories have a common theme.

All have escaped traumatic events only to tell strikingly similar stories of having experienced the close presence of a companion and helper. This presence offered a sense of protection, relief, guidance, and hope, and left the person convinced he or she was not alone but that there was some other being at his or her side, when there was none.

One explorer, Frank Smythe, was lost high on a mountain in near-blizzard conditions. He described the presence he found alongside him as an old man who whispered advice and offered him suggestions. The climber explained it this way: “He seems to have been acting as a guardian angel—a wiser self prompting caution and perhaps, stimulating instinctive self-preservation”. Among other notable cases where the third man has made himself known:

  • During the 9/11 attacks, Ron DeFrancisco was trapped high above the impact zone when a plane hit his building. He was overcome by smoke and began to fall into unconsciousness. At that point, according to DiFrancesco, “someone called me and told me to get up”. Only it did not belong to a person around him, but what he calls “a presence”. The voice encouraged him and directed him to “run through the fire” as it was his best means of escape. The voice encouraged him to keep moving until he reached safety, when “it let me go”.
  • While on his historic flight from the U.S. to England aboard The Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh had an odd encounter that he did not report until almost 20 years later. He said there were “disembodied beings” in the cockpit with him. According to Lindbergh, “I’ve never believed in apparitions, but how can I explain the forms I carried with me through so many hours…transparent forms in human outline—voices that spoke with authority and clearness”.
  • After a difficult night struck on the side of an ice-covered mountain with an injured companion, the famed climber Reinhold Messner found he was not alone. In his words, “Suddenly, there was a third climber next to me. He was descending with us, keeping a little to my right and a few steps away, just out of my field of vision”. He felt a renewed sense of calm. “The mere presence somehow helped me regain my composure”. He made his way to safety.

The Third Man has been termed many things by medical professionals who try to explain it rationally: “A sensory illusion caused by extreme physical exertion or monotony”. “A condition attributable to low blood glucose or cerebral edema”. But there seems to be something more there.

Some have referred to it as the “angel switch”, an otherworldly mechanism that kicks in when we reach our limits of endurance. Peter Hilary, a noted adventurer who has witnessed the third man himself, believes that there is “a benevolent being assigned to each of us on a permanent basis, who sometimes works in the background like a discreet servant” and in times of emergency makes itself known in the physical realm.

For me, the third man brings up more questions than answers. Is it possible that some part of the self actually leaves the body at those moments when death may be imminent, much like those who leave their body while on the operating table? Are we viewing and aiding ourselves from a different plane of existence? And if we can call up this guiding force in times of great need, might we also be able to use this resource for comfort and guidance in everyday life?

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 15, 2015.

Will the texting, TV-watching monks of Cambodia find enlightenment?

Monks in Cambodia.

Monks in Cambodia.

If you asked me to name the place where enlightenment could most easily be obtained, I might guess a Buddhist monastery in the Far East—that is until I read a recent article in the United in-flight magazine Hemispheres.

It seems that in recent years, Internet use has become widespread at temples across Cambodia. According to the article, “It is common to see monks toting iPads and smartphones. Many have their own Facebook pages.” This seems a bit out of character to this uninformed westerner.

I’ve always suspected that many who choose the life of a monk, or for that matter the priesthood or any holy calling, were also seeking to escape the complexities and distractions of the modern world. Addition by subtraction.

But it appears that offering Wi-Fi and TV are now seen as necessary in many monasteries, because “to deny your initiates media access, would likely lead to a severe drop in the number of monks”. This is in spite of the fact that Buddhist monks are not supposed to do anything that would encourage passion or craving.

At the Buddhist Wat Preah Prom Rath monastery in Cambodia, ‘there are two satellite dishes on the temple roof and a big-screen television in the communal dining room”. On the day the writer of the article visited, several young monks were huddled around the TV watching a soccer game.

According to Bout Pranang, the monk who oversees the monastery and its 50 or so initiates, “They used to eat in silence. Now they want action kung fu movies from Hong Kong. There are just too many distractions.”

The head monk admits to having difficulty with “the newfound worldliness of his young charges, but he tries to keep an open mind”. He states that: “One can still pursue the path to enlightenment while living in the modern world. It is just harder with so much access to pornography.”

Social media posts? Kung fu movies? Pornography? Add a keg of beer and it doesn’t sound too far different from a college frat house. But more importantly, don’t these distractions of the modern world make it difficult to hear the voice and insights of the heart?

This got me wondering if my idealized view of a Buddhist monastery was wrong-headed or if the living situation at Wat Preah Prom Rath was an outlier. But with a quick Web search I found a discussion on the PBS Web site about the “decline in Buddhism in Thailand”.

Like in Cambodia, it appears that there are a diminishing number of young men who choose to become monks. They are instead lured by the potential riches that come from working in the growing Thai economy and the fact the country is “embracing consumerism with gusto”. The story points out that:

Scandals have also contributed to the diminishing numbers of monks, scandals revealed by social media. Pictures of monks at parties with women, drinking alcohol, watching porn, driving expensive fancy cars. Things monks are not supposed to be doing.

Now at this point, your Wake Up Call columnist would normally tell you a “good” Buddhist story, something about monks on top of a Himalayan mountaintop finding enlightenment under the guise of a wise old sage, or the tale of American Chris Lemig, who went from a life of drink and drugs to become a Buddhist monk in India.

Instead I took a look in the mirror—and had to ask, “Who am I to judge?” Because on further reflection, the iPad-toting, sports-watching, beer-quaffing monks sound an awful lot like me…trying to stay on the righteous path, getting distracted, getting back on the path, stumbling, getting back on the path again. And I believe as long as we continue to return to the path, there is hope for me, and the Cambodian monks, yet.

This post originally appeared on my Patheos column Wake Up Call, June 17, 2015.

Jack LaLanne on improving your spiritual and mental well-being in 10 easy steps.

Jack LaLanne, 1961

Do you remember “The Jack LaLanne Show”? As a child, I can recall my mother watching the program on our black-and-white television. Jack was a “fitness expert” before there was such a thing, and I remember him as a man in constant motion. Wearing his trademark jumpsuit, he took viewers through exercise routines they could easily do right at home, using props like a kitchen chair and a broom.

I hadn’t thought much about LaLanne since then, until a few days ago when I saw a short video clip of him online (since taken down)—and noticed a hand-written list of 10 words just over his right shoulder. I tracked down the footage, and it turned out that Jack was promoting an easy-to-follow “10-Point Self-improvement Plan”. And surprisingly, his plan is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

For those who don’t know Jack LaLanne, he is regarded as the “the founder of the modern fitness movement”. And after looking back on his life, I now see what made him such impressive figure. His life mission was to “help people help themselves” and he meant all people. Jack insisted that exercise was for everyone, regardless of your age or physical condition, and that you could engage in it anytime, anywhere, even with meager equipment.

Most importantly, what made Jack different from the exercise gurus of the past, was that he took a 360-degree view of life. While he preached the benefits of regular exercise, he also spoke of the importance of a proper diet, having the right attitude and the need for faith. He wanted to improve his viewers’ well-being, body, mind and spirit.

Jack called his 10-point list “little secrets to help improve yourself from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head”. And he promised that if you tried it each day for a week, you would begin to see “an amazing change in the way you feel and look”. Check out the list and Jack’s advice below, with my comments noted in italics.

Jack LaLanne’s 10-Point Self Improvement Plan

  1. Exercise. It’s the key to everything, if you don’t exercise you will look and feel old. Jack exercised daily right through his 96th year of life.
  2. Nutrition. Eat more fruits and vegetables, and more lean meats. Cut out white flour, sugar and fried food. Be conscious of what you’re putting in your body. Jack swears he had a life-changing experience once he cut junk food out of his diet.
  3. Positive Thinking. Think wonderful thoughts. Count your blessings. Appreciate what you have and don’t focus on what you don’t.
  4. Good Habits. Replace a bad habit with a good one. Have 10 minutes to spare? Instead of mindlessly scanning your phone, try a mini-meditation session or a walk around the block.
  5. Grooming. Be aware of your personal appearance, the way you look, how you dress. “Be a lovelier you.”
  6. Smile. Keep a pleasant look on your face. Smiles are infectious.
  7. Posture. Whether walking, standing or sitting, “pull the tummy in and keep the shoulders back”.
  8. Help Others. It is more blessed to give than to receive. Help others have a better life. When you help others, you also help yourself.
  9. Relaxation. Spare 5-10 minutes each afternoon to lie down in a dark room, completely relaxed. “Recharge the human battery”.
  10. Faith. You can’t do it all by yourself, have faith in Nature and God above. Put forth some effort and you’ll find that God helps those who help themselves.

It all makes sense even today, doesn’t it? Read these 10 points again. Then, print them for easy access and try them tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that. And see if the result isn’t a happier, healthier you.

This post originally appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, June 30, 2015.

How Eileen Flanagan Turned a Midlife Malaise into a Life with Purpose.

Eileen Flanagan

Eileen Flanagan

What do you do when you reach middle-age and realize you’re living a life that is far less fulfilling than you expected? When you become aware of the fact you’re not living the simple and idyllic life you once imagined, but something that more closely resembles the consumeristic, upward-striving lifestyle you were trying to avoid.

Well, if you’re Eileen Flanagan, you reexamine your life and you do something about it. In her new book Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope, Flanagan points out a common problem among those of us in our 40s and 50s, which she alternately refers to as “midlife despair” and “midlife angst”. She sums up her own uneasiness this way:

How the hell did I become a woman who has a big house, a chemical peel appointment, and stock in a fracking company? How did I become so sucked into the American mainstream, and what can I do to create the kind of life—the kind of world—I really want?

The funny thing is at this point in her life, Flanagan has all the external trappings of American success. A big house, two cars in the driveway, a family with all the latest electronic gadgets. Yet when she begins to talk to friends she discovers she’s not the only one wishing she had “less house and more freedom”. She comes to the realization that:

At the very least, everyone I knew had too much junk in the basement and too many e-mails. Those who were lucky enough to keep their jobs through the recession often worked longer hours than they liked to pay for stuff they were not sure they needed. Many of us yearned for a different way of living and a sense that our lives mattered.

For Flanagan, her angst comes from the nagging sense that she was not fulfilling her own life’s purpose and that her life was “out of sync”. She believed she was not doing the thing she was put on this earth to do. In her words:

When I confided to friends that I felt I wasn’t fully using my gifts—that I was meant to be more than I had become so far—many sighed in recognition. Their lives had not turned out as they had expected either.

So how did Flanagan find her raison d’être? She didn’t have to look far, for it came from a specific place and time that informed who she was today. In her young adult life, she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana, Africa, helping others in a poor community and learning to live simply. She compares that time of her life to where she found herself many years later:

(In Botswana) there was always time for a cup of tea, a song, or to spend time with a friend. Being able to watch the Southern Cross traverse the night sky was entertainment enough. At the end of my first year, I wrote in my journal, “I think I might be content being poor for the rest of my life.” 27 years later, when I reread my journals in the office of my new five-bedroom house in Philadelphia, that sentiment felt painfully naive.

So Flanagan retraces her roots, making a return trip to Africa to visit with old friends and find “something to infuse the next part of my life with meaning, some inspiration to carry me home to my family and a more committed life”.
She finds it, rediscovering a sense of purpose. And at the age of 49, she returns home and quits her job as a professor at a small university, becoming active in causes that are near to her heart.

She is helped along the way by her faith, which she sees as “not just something you trotted out on Sunday morning but a compass for how you lived every day”. As a young adult, she had become a Quaker and there is an interesting passage where you can see why the religion, where everyone has the power to directly access God, appeals to her.

The first Quakers believed that the religious institutions of seventeenth-century England had lost touch with their spiritual source, so they stripped away anything that distracted them from God—stained glass windows, gold candlesticks, bishops, fashion, and gambling, for starters. They waited in silence in “meeting for worship” to directly experience God without a priest or ordained minister. The “Inward Light” or “Inward Teacher” could be accessed by anyone, they proclaimed, regardless of gender, race, or even religion.

She had now come to believe that the core Quaker values of simplicity, equality and peace were all threatened by climate change and she makes it her mission to “keep the planet habitable”. So she becomes an environmental activist, helping to organize and lead a group called EQAT, the Earth Quaker Action Team.

She works to stop mountaintop removal coal mining, participates in marches against companies that are fracking, gets arrested in D.C. for civil disobedience while protesting climate change. By the end of her tale, she has again learned how to find the value and freedom of living a simple life.

I realized, you had to trust that if you only had one pair of jeans, you’d be okay if they got ripped, that if you didn’t stockpile onions, you’d be able to borrow one when you needed to. You had to trust that your worth wasn’t measured by what kind of car you drove or whether you owned the latest computer.

Flanagan finishes the book saying that she now believed she was “part of the many, connected to a spiritual force greater than ourselves”. She was “moving forward with hope”, her life and actions now connected with her core values and sense of spirituality, her midlife malaise a thing of the past.

This post originally appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, June 5, 2015.

If gays are going to hell, are gluttons going too?

949285_40326566-e1432306788902-217x300A few days ago, here in my home state of New Jersey, a story appeared that irked me. The Director of Campus Ministry at Seton Hall University, Warren Hall, posted a pro-LBGT (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/ Transgender) remark on his Twitter account. In today’s day and age, it seemed fairly innocuous: LGBT ‘NO H8′.

Who can argue with a no-hate message? But the next day Mr. Hall was fired from his job. Now, you should know that Seton Hall is a Catholic University and Warren Hall is a Catholic priest. (I myself am a lapsed Catholic.) And it appears his firing was made not by the university, but by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark which made the appointment at Seton Hall.

But you’ve got to wonder: during a time when Pope Francis himself has been quoted as saying “If someone is gay…who am I to judge?” it seems that the Archdiocese of Newark is doing a lot of judging. And it has decided that by making a statement supporting the LGBT community, Warren Hall was taking a stand that was against the church’s principles and beliefs.

It reminded me of another story I recently heard, as told by the American pastor Shane Willard during a sermon titled “We Are Not The Masters of Good and Evil”. (Special thanks to Patheos reader Jim Smith for pointing this video clip out to me.) I will paraphrase it here:

While Willard was ministering at a small church, he ran into an obviously upset congregant. The man walked up to Willard and practically shouted at him: “What are we going to do about the homosexuals in our church?” Willard asked why this upset the man so much; he responded that homosexuality was a sin, it said so in the Bible.

Pastor Willard then asked the congregant if he knew how many times homosexuality was mentioned in the Bible. The man did not know, and the pastor informed him it was only a handful of times, maybe three or four.

He then asked the man if he knew how many times the Bible mentioned gluttony as a sin or portrayed it in a negative light. Again, the congregant did not know. And the minister replied that gluttony was mentioned at least 25 times. (For some back-up to this claim, click here.)

Pastor Willard then asked the man if there were any gluttonous, or overweight people who were members of the church. “Yes, there are many,” the congregant had to admit. The pastor then mentioned the church’s long-time usher who had what my mother-in-law politely calls “a large body habitus”. He asked if he would say the usher was gluttonous? Yes, replied the congregant.

“Do you think we should kick our overweight usher out of the church for being gluttonous?” asked the pastor. The man did not respond. Willard followed up this question up by asking, “Does he make you want to go out and eat—eat so much that you will become a glutton yourself?” “No,” the usher sheepishly replied.

“We don’t chastise the overweight for overeating,” remarked Pastor Willard. “So why are you casting the gay people in this church in such a harsh light?”

The congregant thought about his words. He had to admit he had perhaps overreacted. The minister then left him with an important piece of advice:

“It is our job to love. It is God’s job to judge.”

The pastor went on to say that we are not called to be “the masters of good and evil’. That is not our role, and in fact, we are terrible at it. We should not be determining the worth of others. We should be using our resources to address the real problems here on earth and be “masters of love and life”.

It is our job to love. It is God’s job to judge. It is a message I thought about as I read the Seton Hall story I referenced at the top of this column. And I believe it is an idea that the Archdiocese of Newark should take to heart. After all, doesn’t this message reflect the true teachings of Jesus?

This post originally appeared on my Patheos column Wake Up Call, May, 22, 2015.

The puzzling Jesus parable—and a minster’s perfect response.

Byzantine icon of the fig tree parable

Byzantine icon of the fig tree parable

It was a few hours after my daughter was born, and I was sitting in chair in a small local hospital, as my wife and newborn child slept peacefully nearby. On the nightstand next to me, I noticed a copy of The Holy Bible, Contemporary English Version and picked it up.

It was the first time I had opened up a Bible in years, and as I flipped through the pages I was surprised to find it was not the medieval-sounding “King James” version I had glanced at in hotel rooms in the past. This bible was written in a modern-day tongue. And while I can’t say that any one passage stood out to me, I was struck by how surprisingly readable it was.

Several weeks later, to appease some old-school family members, we began planning a baptism for our new daughter. I contacted our small town’s only religious institution, a quaint Methodist church, and made plans to meet with the minster and schedule a baptismal date.

This got me thinking it was an appropriate time for a quick refresher on the teachings of Jesus—and I knew the perfect place to turn. I tracked down a copy of The Holy Bible, Contemporary English Version and over the next several days I read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John from beginning to end.

While I found a few passages that I underlined for further reference, it struck me that trying to find meaning in the Bible was similar to panning a river for gold. On occasion I found a shiny nugget, but more often than not, I sifted for meaning and came up empty. Some of the parables were like roads lined by pleasant scenery that led me to dead ends. I even found a few passages that didn’t just puzzle me, they troubled me.

One passage that I couldn’t quite figure out was the “Curse on a Fig Tree” in Mark 11:13 and :14. It reads like this:

Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”

What? Taking this passage at face value, Jesus comes upon a fig tree bearing no fruit—for good reason, it’s out of season—and in what appears to be a spasm of anger, declares that the tree will never grow fruit again. The next day, Peter remarks that the “fig tree has withered”; it’s apparently dead. Which baffled me, for if Jesus had the power to bring the fig tree death, why didn’t he simply give it a jolt of life so it could bear the fruit he was looking for?

As much as I tried, I couldn’t figure out the lesson to be gleaned from this passage. So I waited until my meeting with the spiritual leader who was to baptize our daughter, the now retired Reverend Donald Marks, and I asked him to explain the fig tree parable, whose message seemed contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

He did not give me the definitive answer I thought I would hear. Instead, he paused in thought for a moment, then looked me in they eye and said something that surprised me:

“You know Tom, that passage has often troubled me, as well.”

He went on to stress the importance of finding the Bible passages that had meaning to me personally, for that was where I would find the greatest inspiration and guidance. And for a question that seemed to have no good answer, his non-answer felt right.

Many years have passed since that incident, and I must admit to finding greater spiritual guidance in the intervening time from other sources, including here and here. But I still think back to Reverend Marks’ words, as it reminds me that no one religion has a monopoly on the truth and we can never be so arrogant as to think we know all the answers.

I believe that while we may find a religious or spiritual text that can point us in the right direction and lead us down the right path, we must ultimately take the final few steps on our own. It is here that, left to our own devices, we come closest to truly knowing the power and infinite love of the enigma we call God.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, May 10, 2015.

Life is too short to be “busy” all the time.

pedestrians-400811_1280-300x198I recently listened to a podcast with a great riff by the author Tim Kreider on how we seem to pride ourselves on our “busy” lives. Tim points out that while this busyness makes us feel important, there’s also a huge downside to our nonstop activity—it takes away from our ability to be lazy.

Now, one man’s lazy is another man’s downtime, and Kreider is no slouch. He’s an accomplished author, who writes at least 5 hours a day before indulging in more leisurely pursuits. He refers to this downtime as a necessity, because when we’re idle it allows us to step back, survey the world and figure things out before moving on to our next order of busyness.

There’s just one problem for many of us: As much as we’d like to, we don’t have time to be lazy. We’re busy with kids, never-ending “to do” lists and time-eating 50-hour-a-week jobs. So how do we squeeze more out of our busy lives? How do we live a more fully engaged and spiritual life, when our hectic schedule is always threatening to overwhelm us?

If we can’t escape all this busyness, perhaps we need to start looking at life with a fresh set of eyes—alert to the positive things that are happening within our daily activities. That means paying greater attention to moments we often view as busy-work and/or a waste of time. This awareness is crucial, because as poet Ivon Prefontaine points out:

We only live in one space: the present. It is important to live where we are at this very moment as fully as we can.

So what’s it like to live fully in the moment? An example comes by way of James Martin in his book Becoming Who You Are. Martin tells the story of the writer Andres Dubus and his reflections on encountering the holy in his daily life. It started innocently enough when Dubus was making lunch for his children one morning—what most of us think of as a chore—and sensed that there was more to his actions than what it seemed. He discovered that:

Each moment is a sacrament, this holding of plastic bags, of knives, of bread, of cutting board, this pushing of the chair, this spreading of mustard on bread, this trimming of liverwurst, of ham. All sacraments.

Finding the sacred in sandwich-making is a hint as to how we might look at many of our “I’m busy” activities. Might giving your kid a ride be a chance for conversation and bonding? Might washing the dishes be an opportunity to engage in silent meditation? Might even the dullest workplace be a chance to connect with others who share similar problems, hopes and dreams?

Like Dubus, in his groundbreaking book A Religion of One’s Own, Thomas Moore also talks of consciously partaking in sacraments in our everyday lives. He tells us that Henry David Thoreau believed that “just getting up early can be a sacrament, a spiritual act.” Moore advises us to plan for these moments each day, tacking them on to our regular schedule:

Instead of just letting your days unfold spontaneously or being at the mercy of an inflexible, busy schedule…set up a few regular activities, like meditation before breakfast, listening to music before lunch, being quiet after ten p.m., eating simply in the morning and taking a quite walk afterward, if only for five or ten minutes.

Returning to Tim Kreider, he offers a wise piece of advice: Choose time over money, for our best investment is in spending time with those we love. And who can argue with the notion of choosing downtime over work, especially when it involves being with those closest to us. (As the story goes, no one has ever been on their deathbed wishing they had spent more time at the office.)

But if you, like me, can’t escape a long workweek and have a ton of obligations outside of the office to boot, there’s just one option. Start getting more out of each moment, being mindful of each step and each action you take. We are best served by remembering the words of the Persian philosopher Omar Khayyam:

Be happy for this moment, this moment is your life.

This post originally appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, April 25, 2015.

Napoleon Hill on getting ahead in life: with sex.

HillSuccessful people tend to be highly sexed. ~Napolean Hill

Have you ever read Napolean Hill’s Think and Grow Rich? One of the strangest and most curious parts of this self-help classic is found in a chapter titled The Mystery of Sex Transmutation. I’m sure it raised a few eyebrows when it was first published in 1937, because it tackles the subject of sex—and how it can effectively be used in the workplace.

The sober Hill isn’t talking about sleeping your way to the top, but in using what he calls “sex emotion” to get ahead in business and in life. In 1967, an 84-year old Hill again weighed in on the subject of sex in a sequel to his classic, Think and Grow Rich with Peace of Mind. There, the title of the “sex” chapter more closely mirrored his intent: How to Transmute Sex Emotion into Achievement Power.

Writing during the height of the sexual revolution, Hill claimed that “young people often make the mistake of seeing only the physical side of sex”—not that there was anything wrong with that. But Hill thought we needed to take a broader view of sex and the fact we can “use transmuted sex energy to add value to everything” we do. He proposed transforming our sex drive into a “dynamic drive which brings success”.

Hill was ahead of his time, and maybe even our own, in that he saw sex as something more than physical passion but as a unique kind of energy that can be repurposed. In his words, “It’s an energy that can be directed into many channels. Anything you do can be electrifying and positive and profitable when it is infused with sex emotion”.

The key to success is the “transmutation” part, which is defined as the action of changing a state of being into another form. So, in essence, sex transmutation is the ability to switch a desire for physical contact into a positive energy or enthusiasm. Hill points out “when the energy is being transmuted, there is no desire for the physical act” of sex. “Something else that is very vital and important can be accomplished with the same energy.”

So what happens if you can successfully pull off this transmutation? According to Hill, transmuted sex energy can “add warmth to your handshake, strength to your voice, attraction to your personality.” Hill believed that the thing we call personal magnetism is in fact rooted in sex, and those who have it have successfully pulled off the transmutation.

In Hill’s view, sex energy can be used to do just about anything you do better, as it adds an extra dimension to your work. He writes: “Great artists know how to channel their sex energy into their artistry. Great orators use sex energy to sway their audiences. A great scientist uses the same dynamic force to solve the problems of invention.”

Of course, the hard part is taming the beast we know as our sex drive. But maybe the issue here is our preconceived, compartmentalized notion of sex. Hill points out that “sex does not exist in a separate compartment in our lives, but permeates our entire existence.” He sees it as a magnetic energy we can effectively put to use not just inside the bedroom, but outside of it as well.

Note: I previously wrote about Napoleon Hill and his take on work/life balance. You can read more here

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, April 13, 2015.