Archive for February, 2015

Saints, Idols, and Good Works

February 23, 2015

“The saint does not have to bring about great temporal achievements; he [sic] is one who succeeds in giving us at least a glimpse of eternity despite the thick opacity of time.” Dorothy Day quoting Father Henri De Lubac, S.J.

I have come back to this quote over and over again this past week. I have found it both challenging and inspiring. It has challenged me, because I tend to idolize the life of “good works.”  Father Henri De Lubac is not in any way suggesting that we should not do good works. But he is calling into question our tendency to judge and value others, especially people of faith, by the success or failure of their projects.

saint-francisSaints, like the rest of us, must live their lives here in historical time, with its many challenges and demands. And it makes sense that many of them would be doing the work of resisting oppression and assisting the afflicted. But this work is only a reflection of an inner quality. The work itself, while beneficial and necessary, is not the goal.  Rather the “goal” is the life lived in deep faith.

The works in this world, successful or not, are just the temporal and transitory expression of the depth of one’s faith. They are signs pointing us towards the reality of immeasurable wisdom and compassion. The moment that we lose sight of this fact, the “signs” become idols. We get caught up in what Trungpa called “spiritual materialism.” We mistake the finger, that is pointing to the moon, for the moon itself. As Paul Tillich points out in his Systematic Theology, holiness is only holiness in so far as it negates itself in pointing to the divine of which it is the medium. The saint is a saint because his or her life points beyond themselves and towards the Truth.

Garchen Rinpoche

Being a saint is not about being perfect. Saints are human. They make mistakes. They are subject to all the many sufferings that befall humans. Most saints are hidden, unseen until we begin looking for them.

Saints take on the impossible. They see some good that should be done, and do it. They live an uncompromising religious life, even if such a life seems totally unrealistic. We, as ordinary beings, might ask how one person can make a difference?  For the Saint, however, the question might be, how can one person’s faith not make a difference? And herein lies much inspiration.

Peace, Paul

Images: St. Francis of Assisi, Garchen Rinpoche


February 10, 2015

“I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”

Matthew 25:35

It is hard to believe that here in Puna, one of the wettest places in the US, we are experiencing a drought. The roads are dusty and the grass is brittle, crunching underfoot as we walk across the yard.

Because of the isolated and rural nature of the area we live, most of us catch our own water. There is no county water coming to our homes. We bath and cook with rainwater. Which is wonderful until one faces the very real possibility of running out of water. It is not something that most people in the west ever contemplate.  Water is so abundant that we take it for granted and get frustrated instead when the internet goes down.

We cannot imagine what it would be like to go without water for a day. How much harder it is then to understand what it must be like to live where water is scarce? No water to drink or bath with. No water for washing: dishes, clothes, hands, etc. No water to cook with. No water for your crops or animals. No water for sewage. What must it be like to be parched? Few of us in the West have any idea.

In ancient times, offering water was an act of hospitality that could be life saving. The Pali Cannon is filled with accounts of people offering the Buddha water for washing and drinking. Likewise, I am certain many individuals offered Jesus water while he traveled around arid ancient Palestine.

Holding a Tea CupWater is such a simple and important gift. It is a precious and life giving resource that many in the world do not have. In the West we are blessed. The act of offering drink to the thirsty is more about hospitality. It is the act of opening our heart to another person and quenching, in some small way, their loneliness.  It is an opportunity to share in our common humanity with all of its joys and sorrows.

However, let’s not forget those who do not have access to clean water. They have as much right, and certainly as much need, of water as we ourselves do.

Peace, Paul

What is Important?

February 2, 2015

Soot and ash have been raining down on our house from brush fires ignited by the active lava flow few miles down the road. The air stinks of smoke. It catches in one’s throat and causes coughing fits. In the evenings we walk the dog to the end of the street and watch the smoke rising from the forest beyond the adjacent houses. It is not as close as it seems, but it is another reminder of the danger lurking in the neighborhood. It has been several months since the public became aware of the approaching lava – weeks and months of worry and speculation and stress with little end in sight.

Lava above Pahoa town, January 2015

We are very lucky to live near the outside edge of any possible lava flow routes. We feel the effects but do not live in fear of losing our home. Nevertheless, living under the threat of a slow moving disaster is stressful. Like being in the presence of the dying, it pushes us to look at our own lives and how we are using the very precious and limited time we have.  It is a reminder that what we carry in our hearts is all that we truly have. Displaced and robbed of all that is familiar, how will we respond? What will he hold onto? This will be the test of our faith and our spiritual practice.

Faith must be cultivated before we find ourselves in the midst of disaster and mayhem. We need to begin today, cultivating a deep and loving heart that is honed against the many little disappointments, losses, and challenges of daily life. Each day we need to set time aside to turn away from worldly concerns and open the heart with prayer, silence, and meditation. Scripture is the record of the encounter between the sacred and the mundane. Read with discernment, it can open our eyes to radical new ways to see the world. Some of the greatest religious figures of the 20th century arose in the midst of great tragedy and struggle: Gandhi, Arch Bishop Tutu, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Deitrich Bonhoffer, Dorothy Day, Aung San Suu Kyi, HH the Dalai Lama, to name just a few.

The struggles of life can seem overwhelming. Indeed, if we think that we can take them on ourselves we are doomed to failure. Death will defeat us before we make the world right and just.  With vision and faith, however, we can see beyond the limitations of this life and this world and into the reality of the endless working of compassion.

Every generous and loving act is an expression of the Buddha’s boundless compassion. The historical Buddha had nothing in the way of material goods.  All that he had to offer was his presence and his boundless compassion for the welfare of others. People and gods came to the Buddha to seek his advice and teachings because they trusted in him and the fundamental goodness he embodied.

In the midst of disaster or in the company of death, when we can no longer rely upon the material things of this life, what will we have to offer? Will we, like the Buddha, be able to offer love and compassion or will we be spiritually bankrupt, lost in our own inner turmoil, fear, and ignorance?

Peace, Paul

Photo: Hawaii Volcano Observatory, January 21, 2015