Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Owl at Lyons

Let’s consider, for a few moments, the age-worn owl carved on the otherwise unadorned exterior of the Lyons cathedral.

In the Middle Ages, cathedrals were meant to represent the entire cosmos — all of God’s creation. This owl in Lyons is a lonely little fellow surrounded by bare walls. It has silently and patiently presided over the bustle of the street for nearly nine centuries now.

Tiny owl, huge cathedral. Why did the builders put it there?

Symbolizing Athena, the goddess of wisdom, it’s meant to represent everything that man can know about the universe. The message of those who designed the cathedral was subtle: everything that human beings will ever understand is as nothing compared to the scale and magnificence of creation. Not an uncommon sentiment; but surely an uncommon way of expressing it. It represents a hidden understanding—an inner understanding.

In my writings on Hieronymus Bosch and his use of the owl as a symbol, I've often talked about how his owls are signifiers that a given painting is a wisdom painting, one with special inner significance. Bosch lived in northern Burgundy, and, as an accomplished, sought-after artist, we can presume he definitely would have visited Lyons during his lifetime. Not just Lyons, mind you: also many of the other great Gothic cathedrals in Burgundy. After all, the landscapes in his paintings are forever the rolling hills of Burgundy, not the flatlands of the Flemish countryside. This is the school of practice where he educated himself, visiting the heartland of gothic symbolic expression: Vezelay, Autun, to name just a couple of the utterly astonishing cathedrals in the region—and collecting a vast range of religious symbols, which he then deployed to incredible effect.


At the time, he was seeing these cathedrals only four hundred years or so after they were built. Time has not been kind; in his day, they were undoubtedly in much better states of preservation than they are now. I have little doubt that he drew inspiration from this single owl – unique, so far as I know, on the exterior of any Gothic cathedral — and what it meant when he chose the owl as his signifier for his paintings.

I used to think Bosch was telling us there was a special form of wisdom in a particular painting—spiritual insight, inner knowledge, embedded in the symbols. In pondering this today, I realize that there's an irony in this assumption of mine.

What the owl is actually meant to symbolize is the fact that we don't know anything. It's the equivalent of a “flaw” in each work which reminds us that our understanding is tiny and that we can create nothing perfect –that no matter how beautiful or smart or wise any painting is, it is as nothing compared to creation and to God. The owl serves, among other things, as a symbol of our limitations and a mark of humility.

We don't really know anything. If we reached the absolute limits of everything that it is in fact possible for a human being to know— if we understood dark matter, the secrets of creation – we still would know only a tiny little bit of what creation is. The fundament of its reality is shrouded in a mystery that will never be penetrated by the human mind or its proxies, our technical instruments. If we ponder the situation at any length, we may—as the medieval thinkers who put our owl in place did—begin to realize that the conceits of our sciences and technology are sheer arrogance. For example, we think we know a lot now, but in another two or 300 years, it’s nearly certain that much or even all of what we ”know“ to be true now will appear to the science of the future to be as primitive as the science of the alchemists is to us. Another 300 years after that, the same will take place all over again. Etc. This is an entirely normal course of events.

But why?

Our sciences and our knowledge are exclusively sciences and knowledge of the material—of stuff, of things. Even the psyche—which absolutely cannot be redacted to the realm of things—is expected to succumb to the same stupidness of modern western theory: inanimate matter animating itself by accident. Modern science—mechanistic rationalism— doesn’t want to understand the soul: its wants to exterminate it.

With all these so-called advances we have made (most of which have ultimately served as instruments with which to destroy other creatures and the planet we live on in one way or another, but why dwell on that perspicacious and supremely awkward fact?) there is no real science of the soul, no real science of responsibility. There is no real science of morality. If we studied these things with the zeal with which we study elements and compounds, materials and tensile strengths, perhaps something real would come of it. There’s evidence these subjects were studied in ancient times, but that baby was decisively tossed out with the bathwater during the Age of Enlightenment.
The center of gravity in a culture, in a society, in its Being, can’t be located in material things and our manipulation of them. We need to re-discover an intelligent moral, philosophical, love-based center of gravity. It's true that my generation seized on this idea when we were young and trivialized it by turning it into a hippie event; but the evident mistakes and accidents of youth and stupidity should not be used as an excuse to negate the very real need that they express.

We simply must try to do better than where we are now.

This time that much of the world is spending in self-enforced isolation can be compared to 40 days in the desert: a time to contemplate, a time to draw the center of one's attention back into oneself and discover a feeling for life that’s based around being a human being, not a fragment of flesh whose terms are dictated by the machines we invent.

We can’t know everything—yet we must know something more than nothing. If we are things, we know nothing. If we’re enslaved to things, we know nothing.

Where is our something?

I think it lies not the things we make, but the people we love.

It lies in our hearts, if we but seek it.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

May 30

So here I am this morning. 

I have a responsibility to life that begins when I breathe. 

It isn’t just some mechanical action; there is a duty to live. I haven’t been given life casually or by accident. 

My being is a container that was given to me to gather material. It is a delicate container with a lifespan; eventually, it won’t be able to collect impressions anymore. I’m a servant that was given this container with the task of going out to collect the goodness of life and concentrate its force.

All these things are, of course, allegories, yet they are a very good description of where I am. I start out with a responsibility; and yet instantly I forget it. 

When will I just be here instead of trying to be here? 

It takes a willingness to soften and receive life in a different way. That willingness has to begin at the root of who I am, not in the upper stories where I think about everything. I can’t even afford to think about the root; I need to inhabit it. 

I need to sense it.

There is a finer force even now that flows into me. My relationship with it can be the first thing I encounter, and the first thing I care about. My relationship with it can stay with me throughout the day. Believing that I will always fail and that this isn’t possible is a self-fulfilling prophecy, corrupted with confirmation bias. I have to have faith, hope, and love of and in consciousness. I cannot afford to disbelieve in my ability to serve.

Organic experience is factual experience. It’s objective experience. I inhabit this experience, and the mind quiets. It has so little power here, and it recognizes the authority present in a sensation of life. It is so different than thought itself that thought even stands aside in awe and respect. 

What is this new thing? It asks itself. 

Perhaps I should wait a minute and see.

Into this environment which pauses in my otherwise perpetual race downwards towards stupidity, a breath enters. 

Force is concentrated. 

A new relationship arises. 

Everything I wished for — even things I didn’t know I should wish for — is in it. In fact, it so far exceeds my wish I can see that my entire wish was mistaken. Yet it refuses to define itself; it leads and asks me to follow, always just out of sight. Moving into an unknown landscape that I am invited to participate in. 

The force merges with the search; they are one thing, this finer substance of Being and this longing for a return to the home that I left behind when I was born and no longer remember or recognize.

For a little while, I'm done with arguments. There is a gift here to be accepted; I can just take it and be with myself. 

Maybe this way, I will begin to better understand my responsibility, and the value which was put in my hands before I even asked for it.

Go... and sense, and be well.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Dead Kittens: From the Covid Diaries, May 28

The Covid Diaries

May 28

Yesterday it came to light that I had made a mistake in repeating something from a conversation that the other parties to it considered confidential. 

It was relatively minor, on the whole; nothing of any critical nature was revealed. On top of that, the person that brought it to my attention was surprisingly heavy-handed in the way they delivered the message. I was immediately irritated with myself for the breach of confidence; and paradoxically irritated with the individual who pointed it out, even though they were right. So my emotional reactions were well out in front of me.

First, do the right thing. I corrected the issue at once and apologized. After I had a bit of time to settle down, I realized that I shouldn’t take offense just because the other person was heavy-handed. On the whole, I decided, they were right; and this is what I should focus on. At the same time, I was left with that odd feeling of inner distaste for ourselves which we have when we have screwed something up. This, another emotional reaction, wasn’t helpful either. Before you know it, there was a whole ball of nylon fishing line knotted up inside me. 

I’m sure you know the feeling.

I’m going to mess some things up. I just need to move on. The question that the situation raises for me — and it’s a question with a much more global scope —is this: 

How can I allow the parts in me to criticize, and still love them?

That is, how can I love myself when I fail, and even love the parts of me that criticize myself for failure?

It begins with seeing that I’m human. It seems, coming gently to myself right here as I sit here, that it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to mess things up. There’s no need to engage in self-flagellation. Yet that gentle, very simpleminded approach to the question doesn’t seem to satisfy the complicated parts that want everything to be perfect and race around beating myself and others up for our lack of perfection. If one reads the news, one begins to notice how most articles are about criticizing the lack of perfection in our society and in other individuals. There’s very little media out there about taking a quiet, measured, and reasonable approach to things; about taking the time to get past the emotional reactions, to evaluate, to discern the center of gravity where the truth lies and try to come up with constructive and practical responses to that truth.

Perhaps it’s a mistake to try and extend this practice of seeing how I am in myself to society at large; yet society is made of people like me, other human beings. If we don’t develop a forgiving and intelligent attitude within ourselves, towards ourselves, I doubt we are going to develop a forgiving and intelligent attitude towards others. If we can’t do it at home, we probably aren’t going to do it anywhere.

There has to be a new kind of evaluation of the self in order for things to begin each day in a better way. There is a goodness in the world that is fundamental; it penetrates everything. Human beings may be specialists in ignoring this fact, but the fact remains. It would be worthy to focus on this, to begin with the organic understanding of the goodness of the world, and then see what happens. There’s no doubt that all the crappy parts of me are going to gripe about all the things that are going wrong; and I have to allow those parts some exercise, clip the leash to them and let them run around a bit every day. 

At the same time, the supervisor of my Being, the part that tries to keep all of the maniacs, prevaricators, intensifiers and arguers in line, needs to be mindful enough to recognize the nonsense. There is no way to extinguish the fire; but it can be contained. It’s much better contained, I think, by love and forgiveness than by constriction and punishment.

There’s an available action from within in which I just let go and be. I’ve been sitting here this morning, studying the relaxation and tension in me, and just allowing myself to be with my breathing. Absolutely no interference; I’m just here, breathing. I’m following the breath all the way out to its end, relaxing into it and seeing it as it finishes letting the air out of my lungs. 

At the bottom of that movement, there's a moment when I can feel myself becoming softer, less tense. It’s as though I can just receive life for what it is, without embellishment. There's a tiny kernel, just a taste, of love and forgiveness present at the bottom of that breath, in the pause before I begin breathing in again. The inward breath can give it a bit more life and help it expand within me. 

This doesn’t happen because I try anything. It just happens because I am there with what’s taking place. There isn’t a plan. It’s just life.

I recently wrote a chapter for a book I’m working on in which a man decides to dig a tunnel into heaven, digging out only 1/4 of a teaspoon per day. He’s lucky; he’s in purgatory, so he has all of eternity to work on this project. Generally speaking, I guess most of us feel we're under a little more time pressure. Yet there are some projects, especially with seeing myself from within, that can only be accomplished in very small measure over a long period of time. This is incredibly difficult for me in particular; one of my chief features is that I’m always in a hurry. One of my criticizing parts reminds me that I always seem to rush through things and not do them thoroughly enough. People marvel at how much I get done; but to me, I’m always too sloppy about it. By this time in my life, it’s probably too late to change that. 

Here we are. Get out the love and forgiveness and paint a little on that wound in particular, while I’m sloshing it around overall the other battered parts of myself.

In 1966, we were no longer an American family. We had been in Germany for three years, effecting permanent change in our outlook on the world. It was impossible for anyone in the family to foresee how this would form the trajectory of our future; we just lived it. 

My father took the family to Ibiza on vacation. This was before it became a world-famous hippie destination. 

I was absolutely opposed to the idea of going on vacation on this terrible little island—being psychic, I knew it would be terrible—opposed with every fiber of my incandescently furious 11-year-old being. I complained about absolutely everything—during the planning stages, before we left, at the airport, the flight down there, and once we got to the beautiful little hotel that we began our stay in. 

I remember it well; I was a-b-s-o-l-u-t-e-l-y horrible.

Eventually, my father blew his gasket. He grabbed me by the arm next to the swimming pool at the hotel and told me that the problem wasn’t with where we were. It was my attitude. 

He told me that I needed to find a better attitude. 

This was one of the most focused and intense things my father ever said to me. Usually, he was too busy drinking to give me any practical advice; or too drunk for me to believe his advice could be practical. In this case, however, it was a huge shock. I immediately saw that he was right, and hated myself for it. Hated him for being right. 

Hate and shame expanded in an instant to fill my known universe.

I ran from the hotel in a blind rage of confusion... to where, I didn't know. I had never been in this place and I was truly running off into the unknown. 

I found myself down at the water, which was swelling in on huge waves onto the massive rocks of the shoreline.

I stood on those huge rocks staring into the crystal clear blueness of the Mediterranean, which was very deep just where I was. The blues and greens took on a cast that only depth can produce: ancient colors that awaken the hidden parts of the soul. Huge, bulbous concretions of agate lurked beyond my reach, many feet below the surface; the water rose and fell over them like some magical force. 

Life seemed impenetrable, as though I could never understand what it was or who I was. 

I stood there staring for a long time, unresolved.

Finally, I turned away from the water. There, in a crack in the rocks at my feet—so close I could have touched them at any time, had I noticed—lay several drowned kittens.

The shock was terrible and great. I felt it go through me like lightning; all of the emotions I was feeling were paralyzed, stunned. Stopped in their tracks by the shock of death, of these tiny, bedraggled corpses. 

It was certain, I knew, that someone had drowned them intentionally.
I turned and ran back to the hotel. 

Somehow, the inner blackboard was erased. 

The shock had cleansed me of everything in me that resisted and rejected the idea of the vacation. The world looked like a new and different place; the hotel swimming pool was not a place of punishment, but a refuge. It was surrounded with beautiful flowers which hummingbird moths came to in the evening, and in the next few days I would come to love them with the curiosity and astonishment that I’ve always had for nature. I forgave my father without question, because I knew he was right. The rest of the vacation was wonderful.

I can discover a new attitude. If I look around me, when I need help doing that, it’s there. 

I just need to recognize it for what it is instead of rejecting it as one more event that needs to be stuffed into the old attitude, with prejudice.

Go... and sense, and be well.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Views From the Ground Floor, Part VII: Pure in Heart

Capital representing purification

Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.

To be pure means to be unadulterated. That is, nothing else is mixed in.

We can appreciate the complexity of the meaning of the word heart by knowing that its definition covers more than four pages in the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet the definition we should zero in on out of these many alternatives is definition number five, that is, mind, in the widest sense, including the functions of feeling, volition, and intellect.

This particular definition dates circa 825 in its first citation; and several other critical citations date from the high point of the middle ages, that is, 1175 through 1225, when the esoteric Gothic schools dominated religious thinking. An auxiliary definition is one’s innermost being or the depths of the soul, this meaning also being cited for the first time around 1000 A.D.

Yet let us focus on the first meaning, since it refers back to the three main centers in mankind, feeling, the action of the body, and intelligence.

There is a secret meaning contained here which is difficult to explain, but I shall try to do so for you. The three different functions of being, which are actually independent minds with completely different capacities for taking in and understanding the nature of our sensations and impressions, each exist as organs which receive impressions before the impressions arrive. If each one receives an impression on its own without interference, then it is “pure.” This can only take place, however, if the organ I speak of is awakened, that is, it is not asleep. This means that:

1. Its inherent intelligence is active within its own sphere of context and ability to recognize.
2. Its will, or force towards action, is unadulterated and belongs only to itself.
3. Its physical functions are structurally unmixed with the physical functions of the other organs.

Such a condition is quite rare in human beings, especially with all three of these functions. Yet it is not impossible to "purify" the functions of a particular organ on its own, which can lead to quite high inner work. Super-functioning autism of the type that creates idiot savants is an example of this kind of work, which takes place when one or several of the organs—especially the thinking center—have gross deficiencies that functionally cripple the parts that usually interfere with one another. Paradoxically, the organs without issues then excel beyond measure in their own sphere.

We could get into a long discussion about what it means for organs to be awakened; in the reality of being, Jeanne de Salzmann describes the awakened function of sensation as voluntary. In this state, what it means is that the function (in this case sensation) appears as its own mind which functions independently of my ordinary mind. In this condition, there is no need to search for sensation in the body, to invoke it or "work" with it, because it acts under its own force and is always present. Suffice it to say here that the intelligence of feeling also have the same ability.

In this specific esoteric sense, to be pure in heart means to have voluntary function in feeling, intelligence, and sensation in the same moment.

Now, for the second part of the couplet. They shall see God.

The word see does not at all mean what it appears to mean in this verse.

I'm reminded of Meister Eckhart's comment in sermon 14 B:

…some people want to see God with their own eyes as they see a cow, and they want to love God as they love a
cow. You love a cow for her milk and her cheese and your own profit. That is what all those men do who love God for outward wealth or inward consolation - and they do not truly love God, they love their own profit.

We aren’t, in other words, going to see God with our eyes. The very idea is the construction of our own vanity.

The translators of this passage actually intended for the word see to mean seat, which is intended to indicate the seat of authority, for example, the place where a cathedral church stands. The word itself, used as a noun, is derived from the latin sedes, seat.

A bishop’s see is the domain over which he presides. The phrase, in other words, means that to be pure in heart creates a place for God to reside –God becomes seated, or dwells in, the person who is pure in heart. This is exactly what Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God refers to.

Those who are pure in heart become a see for God: a place for the residence of God’s authority.

A rough and informal translation of this beatitude, then, says, if we become whole and unadulterated in Being, God will come dwell in us.

I'll leave you with one other interesting derivation to ponder. The word is from the original old English sēon, of Germanic origin and related to Dutch zien and German sehen. These two words are probably derived from an Indo European root shared by the Latin sequi, to follow. The German word ziehen, which needs to pull (that which by inference follows you) probably also derives from this word.

While the word see means nowadays to take in through vision, in its ancient roots it preserves rich references to the function of location and relationships. When we see something visually, the impression enters us and is seated in us. It sits in us, connecting to our emotions, as in the phrase, "that does not sit well with me.” We can thus see that our ordinary expressions carry unconscious, subtle, yet specific references to how our inner lives actually function.

We say and do all these things automatically, without any attention. We don't think about them. The whole point of a mindful practice is to think about all of this a bit more actively.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

What is Expression?

There is much more to life than we usually think about or see; and one can go much deeper into oneself than one usually goes.

There is a secret, sacred place of being in all of us. This place lies buried under many layers of psychology and personality, far away from all the functions we use to express ourselves. 

The word express means to press out, and this is what we do. We press ourselves, our Being, out into the world. The world exerts a reciprocal force on our Being because of its emptiness; it draws us out into it.

Yet there's an opportunity to come into contact with a quietness that emerges in our sensation. This isn’t the ordinary sensation of the body, or even any sensation that arises from the ordinary. It's a much subtler and more refined vibration that belongs not to me, but to itself. It has a different taste than anything I know of. Without that taste in me, I will constantly confuse everything I hear about sensation with something else, a lower rate of vibration that's coarse enough to touch the world and my mind, but not to exist within its own energy. 

And it's this sensation that exists within its own energy that I find interesting.

This is a part of myself that is truly me, and yet foreign to me at the same time. It comes as a bride in the darkness to join me; and it weds itself to the breath. In doing so, we become a Trinity, my awareness, the breath, and sensation. 

This draws a silence  towards itself. It's a silence that did not know it existed before; all of its territory was taken up by thinking about this and that, probably thinking about sensation and Being and how I don’t have them and ought to. 

The silence sees that all of that arose from tension.

A different kind of awareness brings with it a different kind of relaxation. Organic sensation contains a relationship within itself that relaxes. It has nothing to do with the will to relax, the thought of relaxing. It’s the embodiment of relaxation, its essence, as though it were an essential oil, a balm applied to Being. As it arrives, the rest of Being — which still maintains some of its tension, although more intelligently — recognizes its authority. This authority is not of the outer world. Expression relaxes; there is no need to press outward. Instead, a force concentrates itself within. There is a magnetism that draws the world towards and refines it. This once again comes from the sensation of a finer energy that manifests within Being.

This finer energy does not need the faculty of thought to direct it. It has the opposite effect; it aligns thought so that it acquires an organic direction similar to the manifestation of sensation. In this, the faculties of both the mind and the body distill themselves into much simpler essences that do not bother themselves with what is unnecessary.

In this quieter place, where the force of Being is more concentrated and can gather itself together in a new attitude, one awaits the arrival of feeling. Feeling does not come when I call it; and it can't be touched. Rather, it comes according to the moment when it realizes that the place has been prepared for it, and instead of me touching it, it will touch me.

This life is incredibly precious. There's no substitute for it. When awareness is born here within it, and it is inhabited, when I dwell within it as close to the earth of my Being as possible, I sense instinctively how grace creates everything. Even the least thing is so filled with grace that it cannot be measured. 

The Perfection is not so far away.

This is what I am interested in today. I’ll be interested in it all day long, not just once in a while when I am gobsmacked and realize that I constantly forget that I exist. 

This interest arises from the relationship, from staying with the molecular vibration that Being arises in. It's a durable interest. Not temporary. 

It is the one force in life that can be trusted above all others.

Go and sense, and be well.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Grace and energy

This morning, I walked up the hill to the chicken coop to feed the chickens. We cut down a large oak tree that, while beautiful, was threatening to the entire property in the house — given how shallow the soil around us is, especially on hillside, sooner or later it would have fallen over right on top of us — and now there is more light. The vegetation is lush, exuberant. The irises are in bloom. Because we still aren’t fully reopened, there is a hush over the landscape — fewer motor vehicles than usual.

Standing at the top of the hill, I was overcome with an inward sense of grace and the energy of the sacred. It’s true, in my own case this isn’t anywhere near as rare as it should be: no one is worthy of a gift like this, even if they get it once — but one never gets used to it. It fills the entire scope of being with a humility and sadness for being so tiny and helpless, and unable to live up to the infinite promise of God’s beauty, generosity, and presence. 

This gift of the world is given so freely, and in eternity— it is always here, right now —that we ought to get down on our knees, bow our head in submission and sing hymns of praise and gratitude all day long every day.

Yet I forget to do that. It’s only when God helps me from within that I can remember; and this, perhaps, is what the whole question of what man can and cannot do turns on.

Go and sense, and be well.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Views From the Ground Floor, Part VI: The Merciful

Madonna, St. Savin

Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.

One of the classic prayers of Christianity, and certainly the classic prayer of the Gurdjieff work, is Lord have mercy.

Yet Christ tells us here that the way to obtain mercy is to be merciful.

As vicegerents of a divine influence, mediated by the inflow of the sacred substances of life into our being, we are called to be merciful, not just ask for mercy. This means that our very nature was created so that we can manifest mercy on the level we are on. We not only have the ability to do this—we have a duty and a sacred responsibility to do so.

I was working in the yard today, repairing a broken plastic bucket, end it occurred to me that I really want nothing to do with any universe created by or populated by a vengeful, angry God. Frankly speaking, if God was like that, I would side with the Devil in opposing Him.

Well, thank God God is not like that. What I am trying to say is that every fiber of my being is opposed to the idea that we should be vengeful and not start with mercy and forgiveness first.

What got me to thinking about this what is the abusive behavior my ex-wife showed towards my children when they were young. I probably should have divorced her much earlier, like my neighbor who not only divorced his wife but got an injunction against her and is protecting his son from the very same kind of abuse. Pondering this, I wondered why I didn't take more aggressive action. Was I a coward? Was this man more more courageous than I was?

After some consideration, I realized that my great weakness in this matter was my forgiving nature. I’m too forgiving. I will forgive at the expense of my own well-being, it's true. I don't know why I'm like this – it's just how I am inside. I believe that no matter how awful or wrong, one should never counteract with vengeful or hateful attitudes. One must always try, in my opinion and in my experience, to come back to the other with an effort to be merciful. This needs to forgive, to try and find a path towards love. I don't have a shred of vengeance in me, somehow. Oh, there are fantasies of it, no doubt – but I just can't bring myself to act on them.

Has this helped me to obtain mercy? I don't know. But I do have an organic sense of what Christ is speaking of here.

There is nothing theoretical about Mercy. The effort to honorably and honestly show it towards others will cost us everything. And it needs to live within the very narrow of our bones. 

May your heart be close to God,

and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Views From the Ground Floor, Part V: Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.

The word hunger here surely means a strong desire or craving. Hunger always relates to a craving for solid food, that is, that which is material.

The thirst here is, of course, a reference to water: in this case, we can understand water as being referent to emotion or feeling.

Together the two phrases tell us that if we have a physical and emotional craving for righteousness, it will lawfully be answered. (They shall be filled.)

Yet what does it mean to be righteous?

The word is originally an English word meaning to be in a right state or proper condition. It has a rightness to it. Given the preceding passages about authority and obedience (blessed are the poor) suffering (those who mourn), and meekness (attitude) we must infer without a doubt that hunger and thirst for righteousness is meant to refer to the embodiment of these three previously mentioned qualities.

The idea of the holy Trinity of the physical, emotional, and intellectual character of creation is built into the first three passages as well as into the intricacies of their specific references. The first passage is a passage about the physical, that is, man's place in creation. The second one is about emotion (mourning and suffering) and the third one is about intelligence (meekness).

Taken together, to be righteous means to know our place and obey, to suffer and grow, and to exercise our intelligence in relation to others. We need to have a wish to do these things; they don't just happen by themselves.

So this particular verse is about agency, that is, in what way we take spiritual initiative.

The passage indicates that if we take spiritual initiative, if we engage in the agency of relationship, it is lawful that our wish will be fulfilled: that is, things will be put in their right order. We will find ourselves in heaven (right relationship); we will grow through suffering; the roots of our being will plant them selves firmly in our lives. This is according to law, not according to the whim of a random universe. It is, in other words, a more realistic and lawfully conformable expression of the idea that everything happens for a reason. A more rightful interpretation of this traditional folk saying is, everything takes place according to law. This sense, Christ's promise is that obedience to law will always yield right results. It’s God’s promise to us.

Another important teaching embedded in this brief couplet reminds us of the traditional idea that the spiritual being is a body onto itself that also needs to be fed. This tradition, of course, is most deeply embedded in the Christian rite of Holy Communion; just as the physical body needs physical food to survive, so does the spiritual body. If it's properly fed, then it grows into righteousness – a right relationship with God and society. If it isn't, its starves and sickens and can even die.

Our hungers and thirsts in life should be first spiritual and then physical, not the other way around. If we do not first crave goodness, we will err.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Views from the Real World on the Ground Floor

First, the good news. 

My mother is in fairly decent shape, all things considered. The reports that she was not eating are accurate, but she’s quite communicative, when she thinks the situation warrants it. 

Yesterday, however, was quite the emotional roller coaster ride.

At noon, a conference for the relatives of residents hosted by the nursing home outlines the challenges such facilities are facing around the world: staff shortages, widespread Covid19 infections, difficulty meeting basic needs for everyone, staff and residents both. Not long after that, they let me know that my mother has not been eating enough, is on an IV, and is only communicating in one-word responses. I ask for permission to visit her; and the Montrose VA home says yes. The concern is that she seems to be deteriorating, and that if we wait too long, she may not be able to recognize me or respond.

Some friends question my judgment in going up there. It is, after all, a decision to enter a very active Covid19 infection zone. I definitely feel, however, that my duty to my mother is to be there for her. No question about it. There's some anxiety about the decision in the background, but it has no power. In the end, I can find no hesitation in me.

There are multiple security checks before getting to the facility. I’m challenged to make sure I’m not displaying any symptoms of infection. The challenge is businesslike and ice cold; by now, what was once unthinkable has become a routine. I get waved through in a perfunctory manner. For me, the visit is a big deal; to the guard, ho-hum.

There are almost no cars in the parking lot. This alone is testimony to how isolated these communities of elderly people have become. Anyone complaining about the measures we have taken so far ought to go see the impact on our senior citizens; I’m not even in the door, and the danger to them is already palpable.

A long wait at the door to the facility itself generates a touching conversation with the security guard on that post, John, who I've run into many times. Usually, our contact is casual and brief; this time, I find out he's had five heart attacks and one Near Death Experience. In it, he saw Elvis, a young Elvis in a leather jacket, seating on a big leather sofa with an acoustic guitar. Elvis was with his mother. They sent him back to earth. "We're not ready for you here yet," they told him.

"I don't get it," John remarks to me. "I'm not even an Elvis fan." 

Verification, I think to myself. The NDE was real. 

In the process, we touch on the human dimension of lives that do not know one another; it confers a special value on what would otherwise be an irritating wait. 

This man — and all the others manning posts like him— is a hero of this epidemic. They are ordinary people, doing ordinary things that transform into the extraordinary simply because of their courage and willingness to be there for others. My respect for them deepens by the minute. It's one thing to read about it; it's another to walk into a facility filled with souls like this, those who are brave enough to get up in the morning for others despite the risk to themselves. It puts the lie to the idea that we've become a nation of cowards that does nothing but whine about every threat that comes along. There are such people, truly, and they do love cameras; but they are tiny creatures, to be ignored in the enormous wave of right attitude and right action sweeping through the places where this crisis is active. This is no media event populated by misstatements and absurd protests. It's a place that enshrines an invisible line between life and death, where one mistake can be terminal.

Elder Jesse—another one of the heroes in this story, the staff member who helped arrange the visit — finally meets me at the front desk. He, as well, treats this quarantine zone as a routine fact, not a special place. 

We set off down the echoing, immaculately clean corridors. Some few staff go about their business, one man sweeping the floor with a nod to me, but the place is eerily empty. There's a sober hush across the halls; even the fish in the massive salt water aquarium in the common room seem subdued. 
As we prepare to enter the wing with the Covid patients, I put on a Tyvek clean room suit, gloves, double mask, and face shield (homemade, but quite functional) when I enter the isolation wing. 
There is no soundtrack. It’s a realm of chilling silence, far from newscasts and Hollywood movies. I find that I’m not afraid or even worried. This must be something like the way the staff feel: it's real life, and I have a responsibility to it. If that responsibility means I have to stand down my concerns for personal safety, it's done without hesitation. Even ego obeys when we awaken to the precarious nature of life. I'm in the midst of facts, not my opinions about things. 
This isn't a story someone wrote.

In a strange way, it's almost a relief; now I enter the fact of this pandemic, the fact of my mother’s infection, the fact of the extraordinary people who are caring for her and others. No matter how brief, the privilege of touching these people and their service sinks deep into me. There is an impression of a kind of love here that we cannot, as humans, attain except in extremes of circumstance; a very matter-of-fact, here-we-are, no-bullshit kind of love that acknowledges relationship, the intelligence of the ordinary when it is attended to with real care, rather than the usual presumption and hubris.
I get into my mom’s room, which is as ordinary as any room. Somehow the banality of the extreme never fails to impress. 

Here I am. Is this all there is to it? 

I'm just here. That's all.

So be here.

I can’t go near her, and feel oddly suspended in a bubble of distance created by danger I can’t see, danger that appears completely theoretical but for all the gear I'm wearing. Mom doesn’t recognize me at first; no one would. I'm covered from head to toe like someone from a science fiction movie. 
The thinking man thinks ahead. I have a sign that I wrote in all-caps with a sharpie in a notebook: Hi mom! It’s Lee. I now fish around for it in the plastic shopping bag and hold it up.

It's a good idea; she immediately understands it’s me when I hold it up. It’s good to get past that moment of confusion, because after her strokes, my mother seesaws between native hyper-intelligence and childlike bewilderment. This visit, she’s far more cognizant than the nurses let on. She begins by cheerfully grumbling that the damn Covid virus has knocked her back; yet it seems more likely, with all the evidence at hand, that she is having congestive heart problems, a possibility being adjusted by on-the-fly changes to her medication.

The conversation is perhaps unimportant; after all, in the sense of actual information exchange, it’s minimal. There are brief but touching FaceTime calls to the grandchildren and her sister; I scold her for not eating enough. Helen keeps telling me I must have pulled a lot of strings to get into the facility, and I reminder that the only thing that got me in was her ongoing refusal to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

She makes one of her comical faces (an essential part of her senior-living communication toolkit) sticking her tongue out and rolling her eyes back in her head. 

It tastes terrible, she says. 

I tell her it doesn’t matter what it tastes like, she has to eat it. 

My mom is in many ways a shell of her former self, like a child. Her medical condition has reduced her to a tiny, shrunken person on a bed with limited range of motion and very little to do. Yet her attitude is enormously positive; she smiles all the time, and seems cheery about everything that happens. 

The love I feel for her is too deep, too subliminal, to be of easy access, simply explained. I can't even walk up to it and touch it inwardly. It has a delicate nature I can't quite explain. I skirt it cautiously, not wanting to damage it, but just savor its taste.

It is an undertone, a note that began sounding in my own life before I even knew I existed that is still reverberating. There are many inner notes of this kind in a lifetime, but few contribute so much to the harmony of one’s awareness as the love for one’s mother. It is, in a spiritual sense, where the song begins; it includes the beat in time before the song, as well as the full length of its music. 

It’s impossible, in any single moment, standing in a room anywhere — let alone separated by layers of high-tech plastic — to appreciate the nature of that song in its entirety. One simply knows that it exists; and that all of its depth, its dimension, its flavor, need to be savored over and over again in many different times, many different places, in order to truly appreciate it.

All I know now is that this is my mom. My care for her is deep in a hidden place in my heart.I don’t want to get too sentimental about it; her condition and her attitude towards it are a form of worship, and I tiptoe around them like a visitor to a cathedral in the middle of a service. It feels like we're at the moment of communion. She knows how to officiate here; I'm an interloper. I may be the one that can walk and talk and think and drive, but she exudes the simple, uncomplicated authority of those who suffer and bear it with dignity. 

It reminds me now of Dostoyevsky's comment that his hope in life was that he could prove worthy of his own suffering.

The moment comes when I have to say goodbye. Despite all of the emotional currents swirling in multiple directions, and my relative lack of fear, there's an intellectual part of me, small but incredibly insistent, that is saying length of potential exposure time needs to be minimized. Finally, I cede to it.

I tell her that I won’t be back unless she’s on her last legs. Are you on your last legs? I ask her. She raises her left hand — the only one she has much control over anymore — off the bed and wiggles it around, checking to make sure that it still works. It’s a crippled, arthritic thing, wrapped in a bandage, but it seems to have an enthusiasm for life all its own, independent of the two of us. 

She looks at me with a big grin. No, she says. She’s quite definite about it. 

No. I'm not on my last legs.

Good. I say. 

I'll be back.

On the way out, I exchange briefly with the nurses on the wing, all heroines who ought to be given medals of honor for their work. 

These are not rich, powerful people: they are brave, incredible people. 

Even now I feel a wave of gratitude for them. I owe them — we owe them — a debt that can never be repaid. There is no greater honor than real service to others. This place, I realize, is not just close to heaven. It has heaven right here in it. The kingdom of heaven is within these women, and they bring it to us not floating on clouds with a chorus of angels, but in the most ordinary of activities. How much of life is like this, with us blind to it? Perhaps all of it. It takes the worst situations to teach me this, to remind me of how I live in the midst of miracles and walk past them all day long, taking them for granted.

As I leave the isolation wing, stripping off layers of gear and disposing them at once, nothing has changed except my attitude. 

I’ve entered the belly of the beast; the creature that has swallowed our imaginations, our society, our economy. 

It turns out it is filled with love and incredibly courageous human beings. They are too busy taking care of business to blame, argue, or accuse. They simply get up each morning, and they care for others.

It occurs to me, as I make this diary entry, that I hope history remembers not the blowhards and fools who have strutted across the stage of this pandemic in what they think are the lead roles, but these every day, ordinary men and women. They are the heroes; they are the leaders. The world is safer in their hands than in the hands of those who control all the money and wield all the power; and thank God for it. 

When we survive, it will be because of them.


Go, and sense yourself, and be well.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.