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Titles

At times we use titles when we refer to people, such as: dad, daughter, doctor, professor, nurse, etc. At other times we use formal names that include a title, such as “Mrs. Orfington,” or “Senator Szcyx.” Our reasons vary for using titles, but some more common ones are: respect for the position that the person holds in relation to us, courtesy to an individual in a public situation or lack of familiarity with someone. We also have habits that are stronger or weaker among us, as one daughter might call her mother by her first name, and another son can only refer to his father as “dad;” one person addresses most professionals by their first names, others almost always use titles.

When we relate with God, in public or in private, we likely make use of a variety of titles according to our understanding and sensitivities in different situations. As with all our other relationships, cultural and societal customs and traditions have an influence on which titles we select at any particular time and on our decisions about when not to use a title at all. Whether we have many rules or few in how we address God, our choices all have to do with our immediate sense for what is appropriate in each particular moment.

When we consider who God is and who we are we might feel the distance between us and therefore choose titles that express reverence. At other times when we are not consciously thinking about God, or attempting any form of prayer, we might become aware that God is present, and be literally speechless, with no need to use titles of any kind. In public worship, no matter what feelings of God’s closeness we might or might not experience, we make use of different titles according to the songs and spoken prayers that are chosen, all of which are intended to match sentiments that we could have, that would be in keeping with some of our personal thoughts and feelings. In public situations we use titles for God according to common agreement, often determined by rituals that support our human-divine contact. In private, we decide, based on our present experience of God.

Praying with any of the many titles for God available to us enhances our experience of relating with an unseen person. At one time, calling upon God as “Dear Lord” might, for example, help us begin to relate from a sense of deep need. Most of us have favorite titles that seem appropriate for us when we are expressing personal concerns for ourselves or on behalf of others. Titles are not the same as names, though “Jesus” might express familiarity on one occasion, and at another, help us to relate with the Son of God.

Just as we might enquire of someone whether he or she is comfortable with our using a first name or prefers to be addressed by a title, so we can ask God. The answers we receive will not be direct, that God feels more comfortable being called by some title or another, but rather we will find within ourselves quiet inspiration for recognizing what best expresses our feelings of closeness, reverence, trust or love.

In choosing which titles, or none, that we use with God or with others, we manifest our own sense of each relationship at that moment in time.

Friends

No two friendships are the same; each is a unique personal relationship. We may have some long-term friends, and some whom we have met only recently; we might share almost anything of our thoughts and feelings with a small number of close friends, and also experience the benefits of a variety of interactions with others. When we reflect on our friendships, we might be able to recall how one or other person became a trusted friend, but we attach greater importance to the value of our friendships than to their origins.

Good friends grow closer to us when we are in need, just as we find ourselves more closely bound to friends when we accompany them in times that are challenging. We can readily appreciate that a trusted friend is a treasure that money cannot buy. Our lives would be much poorer if it were not for one of more of the friendships we have in which our concerns for each other are sincere, and in which we discover a capacity for giving active caring assistance that we might not have otherwise known was within us.

No friendship is ever founded upon equality, since no two individuals give and receive exactly the same to and from each other. We might be in particular need of receiving support at one time, and later be able to help that same friend who then requires our help. But with friends, we do not count what we give, looking for it to be equaled, but rather we find in our hearts that we want to give as much as we are able. We appreciate reciprocity of affection, but without an expectation that it will be expressed in the same ways as our own.

If we consider the many levels and kinds of friendship we have in our lives, we might find the exercise of reflection about them to be encouraging and consoling, especially if we are willing to include our relationship with God as also having many qualities of friendship.

God has cared for us as a friend in many ways, even though we are so very far from being equals. We can ponder how God cares for us as we are, as do our friends, and that we can also depend upon God to be present with us no matter what is happening within us or around us. As friend, God wants what is best for us, but does not manipulate us or bend us to his will. We might hesitate at first to accept that we have something to give to God that only we can offer. What really makes a friendship – the things we do, or the persons? Of course we have to manifest our care in words and actions, trying to please the other in the ways that we creatively devise. But the miracle of friendship depends upon the spiritual gift of love that each of us offers to others as we choose, and which satisfies us so deeply.

God made us for friendships.

Jesus said that he wanted his joy to be in others. (John 15.11) Can we “give” experiences of joy to people, or, can anyone cause another to become joyful? While we might not literally be able to take our joy and directly initiate the same response in someone else, true joy is positively infectious. That is, when we spontaneously manifest an experience of joy in the presence of people who are aware of the circumstances to which we are responding, they are quite liable to become joyful themselves.

When we desire to share joy, not as a projection of control, we certainly cannot cause harm, whether or not anyone actually resonates with the positive energy that moves within and beyond us. Joy is an honest and whole-hearted response to external and internal perceptions of reality. Joy is of God. We cannot directly cause it even for ourselves, but our attitude of openness, and even our expectation of God’s goodness to us, has much to do with how often and to what degree we experience joy. And if we are joyful persons, we want others to share in the goodness that is not under our control to either receive or to give.

God not only made us capable of experiencing joy, but also arranged that our bodies, minds and spirits would, unless we deliberately restrain ourselves, give witness to the movement of grace within us that we call joy. The flow of the living water from the gift we have received readily irrigates nearby hearts that are receptive. We do not have make a special effort to inform people that our joy overflows, though we surely might give voice to our experience, and freely express it in some of the many ways that we communicate with one another.

When Jesus remarked that he wanted to share his joy, what might that mean for us? Clearly, he must be experiencing joy, much joy, if he desires that we have the same gracious movement of the Spirit within us. We could imagine that one source of continuing joy would be his relationship with “Abba” as he called God the Father, in which the ongoing communion is so personal as to be identified as the Holy Spirit. We cannot exactly share in that particular joy, since we are not God. But Jesus also takes great joy in every least bit of trust and love that we have for him and for one another. To share his joy would be for us to consciously engage in thoughts, words and actions of trust and love.

If we cannot create joy directly, we certainly can make decisions that are within our present capabilities of trusting God’s love for us. We can reflect on the daily small and occasionally great gifts of God’s love at work in us, and open ourselves to the “ordinary mysticism” of inspirations that move us in creative love for others.

The words of Jesus about sharing his joy become real and effective in us the more we accept the reality of his love directed towards as if we were dearly important to him – which we are.

Inside and Outside

Occurrences of grace and inspiration take place within us, but quite often the occasion for these experiences is from without. A word or a glance from someone, the way light strikes a familiar object in a new way, and any number of incidents that we contact through our physical senses are frequently the direct links that open for us graced insights, inspired thoughts and other spiritual interior movements.

Experiences of grace and inspiration are not necessarily accompanied by intense feelings, but they are as important for our well-being as commonplace drinking water and meals. We can take them for granted, but life is much better for us when we notice, reflect and even give thanks for at least some of the frequent helpful connections that take place between the movements inside ourselves and all that is outside. Much of our joy, and many of the causes for gratitude in our lives, originates from our ordinary interactions with the people and events that we encounter every day.

God made us whole persons, beautiful in the complementary interaction of our spiritual selves and our physical bodies. If we give almost exclusive attention to the inner workings of our minds and hearts as if that were somehow the only worthy and valuable part of ourselves, we become separated from the gracious entirety of God’s creation and we become less able to resonate in our spirits with the music of God’s presence that is outside us. Alternatively, if we focus almost all our awareness on the actions and beauty of the world about us, the effects are deadening to our spirits, similar to an extravagant but superficial party in which everything is about appearances and nothing about relationships among those who participate. God composed us of both spirit and body, in a beautiful unity that functions best when we think and act from a conscious acceptance and love for the kind of beings we are.

Even though our bodies will certainly die, we will continue to exist as unique persons of spirit who have an appointed destiny for resurrection of the body. We will not metamorphose into angels or other disembodied spirits when we die. We are a unique form of creation, beautiful as God makes us: spirits enclosed with flesh. God, in Jesus, is fully human, and, having gone through human death, lives with a human body, but one that befits resurrection. His present state is the model for how we are intended to be. The continuation of our “inside and outside” aspects after death is a mystery that is far greater, and of much more significance to us, than all the still unknown workings of the universe. “The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” resonate deeply within us, whether or not we use those exact words to explain the natural affinity we have for such a truth.

We can reflect upon and appreciate the beauty of how inside and outside are for us complementary rather than being somehow in opposition to our well-being. Though we cannot fully understand the mystery of the unity of body and spirit that defines us as humans, we can still be grateful that we are indeed “wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

We usually distinguish “work” from “play,” with the former being considered as more meaningful and significant, and the latter being thought of as a leisure activity. Without work, it seems that nothing will be accomplished. But play is also essential for adults. The Bible describes God as doing work in creating the world, and resting afterwards. But God also plays. And might some of what we call work, also be play?

For us, even when we thoroughly enjoy being creative, whatever we do requires some effort, and we generally call that “work.” For example, when we speak about paintings and sculptures, we refer to them as “works of art” rather than “results of play.” But when our work is quite rewarding, we give no thought to the efforts required, and when we play, we might become exhausted, but consider our tiredness a mark of enjoyment. Perhaps work and play are not opposites as we use them, but are instead descriptive categories that reflect our viewpoints at the time we use them.

The specific event of Creation appears to us as a huge project. But for God, just to want the universe and all it contains to exist is enough for its creation. No effort required; no blueprints, plans, or time to completion. From God’s perspective the act of creation might be play. And yet, helping us to fulfill the purpose of our existence as creatures, looks like the most extreme kind of work: Jesus enters fully into our human experience of limited time and energy, and labors on our behalf even through suffering and death. It does not look like play to us. But whether we call what God does either work or play, it seems that God’s concern is only to love, and so both categories and neither suffice to describe the beautiful mystery of love that encompasses all of creation in general and each of us in particular.

When we relate with God in personal prayer, is it work or is it play? In English, “pray” sounds very much like “play.” Sometimes we might even have said “play” when we meant “pray.” There is more to the similarity of the words than sound and spelling. When we pray, it often requires effort on our part just to be present. Yet, when a word of Scripture, a beautiful scene or a moment of deep peace lifts our hearts, we are wholly unaware of any work on our part. In such moments, all seems like play, as God moves in our spirits with perceptible affection. And is that “work” for God, or is it more like creation, God playing with us, quite personally and lovingly? Prayer, relating with God person to person, connects us with the saving work of Jesus. But that “work” has been completed.

Both work and play are meaningful concepts in our lives. But when we pray, we participate in God’s love, where both work and play merge into one and the same experience.

We can understand what people mean if they say that God did not answer their prayers, because we have all asked for things that we did not receive. If we kept a list of everything that we have prayed for in a single day, we might check off very few as having been answered according to the requests we made. All those prayers for healing of sick friends or for peace in a particular part of the world, or for so many other things of importance to us: no changes that we could perceive.

And yet, we know that there is much more to our prayers than crafting specific petitions. We are not making the equivalent of long-distance phone calls to a world-wide business, and we are not limited to words, whether our own or those that are already composed. In our better moments, we are able to recognize that prayer is any and all personal contact with God that has more to do with the trust and love within us than the immediate subject of our concerns. Answers to requests cannot be judged by whether or not we receive favorable immediate outcomes.

From the perspective of a trusting relationship with God who loves us, the only prayers that are not really answered are those that are directed not to God, but to a false image of God that we might sometimes allow in practice if not in conscious acknowledgment. And if our prayers are limited to strict habitual formulas of words, they might omit the essence of presenting our concerns to God, and follow more closely the model of telling God how things are to be done. Bringing an attitude of trust to prayer is of great importance, since we are addressing the One who knows us better than we know ourselves and how each of us can best fulfill our reason for being.

While we can ask for anything, and in any manner that seems appropriate, we do well to recall that “no” can be a loving answer. We know how to say no to people when it would be wrong for us to accede to a request or to a demand. For example, we might have previous experience that we cannot explain, or knowledge that a requestor is incapable of understanding. And so our response, given out of love and in respect, is a clear and direct answer: “no.” We do not want to forbid requests or statements that might require of us non-agreement, and neither does God. We would like our answers to be respected as coming from our own sense of what is best. That is the kind of trust that befits our relationship with God.

To receive the kind of responses to prayer that will satisfy us, we can observe the associated energy within us as we begin to pray, and make some helpful adjustments. If we find strong elements of desire to control, together with tightness in our heads and even our hearts, we have all the signs we need that direct us back to our need for trust. When our anxious energy subsides to a more peaceful state, we will find the words or sentiments that best represent us, and that authenticate our prayer.

The surest, most consistent and predictable answer to any and all prayer is the experience of peace within us, the sign that our prayer is gently but really inspired, a sharing in the activity of the Spirit of God.

A statement about “keeping an open mind” is itself open to a wry comment that any kind of thought could enter, helpful or destructive, wise or unwise. We want to be selectively open to improvement, inspiration and creativity, not to whatever might inhibit our continuing growth and development. Thoughts come and go, some that are clearly a helpful part of our mental processes, while others have no positive relationship with our affairs. Selecting which thoughts to “own” and which to dismiss or ignore is a personal responsibility that cannot be delegated.

No matter how unrelated to reality some thoughts might be, they can also be quite attractive and entertaining. They can also provide all-too-easy distractions from our intended occupations. Deciding which thoughts to continue and which to stop is not always easy. Email messages might pop up while we are trying to focus our thoughts on a task to which we have committed ourselves. Cell-phones might notify us of a call or message while we are already in a conversation. Selective openness is not an attitude that we can fully set in place by a single act, but one that we can consciously develop over the whole course of our lives. Every day we have opportunities to practice selective openness in both familiar and unusual inner workings of our minds.

All the thoughts to which we give even partial attention have immediate consequences in our hearts. Fantasizing about a dinner menu while at the same time listening to someone describing their needs, is usually a somewhat conflictual interior movement which, upon reflection, can be recognized as a less than satisfying use of our mental capacities. Thoughts that we choose to allow in our minds have feelings attached to them, of resonance or dissonance, providing us with essential information as to whether or not our openness to the ideas is appropriate in our present circumstances.

Though what goes on in our minds might seem completely and solely our own business, the choices we make, even with regard to thoughts, affects not only our own well-being, but also that of others. If we take seriously our responsibilities towards ourselves and others, we do well to consider that we are never totally alone, even in the matter of selective openness. God is always personally present within our hearts, where we make choices about the ideas that move within us.

When we are negotiating the tension between thoughts of immediate gratification and of real love or between imagined control and realistic acceptance of reality, we will manage these affairs of our constant mental activity with much greater success by seeking grace, inspiration and assistance. We might have learned by reflecting on some of our life-long experience with both positive and negative patterns of thinking that choosing the direction of our thoughts is much easier when we seek the help of God and the support of those who are now with God and whose love for us we continue to trust.

God is very much at home within us, and is not surprised by anything that comes into our minds. But God is also more than happy to assist in the selections we make when we are “keeping an open mind.”

If we pray a blessing before eating a meal, bread might or might not be part of the food we are about to take. But, whether we have bread or not at any particular mealtime, the image of “Give us this day our daily bread” (The Lord’s Prayer) has many possible resonances for us whenever we take a moment to reflect. If we have food available to us almost all the time we might take it for granted, and thereby miss some occasions for experiencing sincere gratitude.

During a typical day, we probably have many occasions for saying “thank you” to people, for any and all the services, kindnesses and ordinary interactions we have experienced. We have developed habits of expressing gratitude that serve us and others well. Life flows more humanely when we acknowledge one another with thankfulness, no matter how small the words or actions that elicit our appreciation.

Our interchanges with one another are usually visible, audible and tangible. But most of us do not see, hear or touch God in the same way as we do one another, and our “daily bread” comes from God in so many forms that we cannot possibly give thanks for them all. But gratitude is, as some would say, an attitude, and not some kind of overlay that would all but eliminate spontaneity. Rather, giving thanks to God often follows upon particular moments of joy that arise when we suddenly recognize that we have received a gift, and the person responsible is God.

Even if bread is not a staple in our diet, especially for those of us with specific allergies to certain grains, we all have memories of having been hungry that can remind us of how important food is, every day. A short time of not having food, whether deliberate on our part or forced by circumstances, enables us to revalue, if we had become somewhat unaware, of the significance of “daily bread” as signifying whatever we eat, as well as other daily necessities.

Few of us would think of consuming even a small loaf of bread, or anything like it in size, all by ourselves at one sitting. A loaf of bread, whether sliced or not, is normally shared by a number of persons at one meal, or kept for successive meals by a single person. “Daily bread” is of course a necessity for each one of us, but also for us as related to others. Few people want to live on bread alone as their diet, and hardly any of us want to take all our meals privately, alone. The Lord’s Prayer has it: “Give us,” not “me,” which matches well the blessed reality of our mutual interdependence. We need one another not just for food, clothing, and shelter, but for all the small and extensive ways we care for one another.

When we pray a blessing at a meal, we can express gratitude for the food, of course, but we can also include in our minds and hearts, if not in words, those with whom we might be sharing it, and all those members of the civilization in which the food was grown, transported to us and prepared.

A highly recommended prayer that leads us readily to gratitude: “Give us this day our daily bread.”

When we rely on others to repair or to service an appliance or a vehicle, we trust them to provide assistance with matters that we cannot ordinarily take care of ourselves. We are disappointed if the repairs or services are faulty or incomplete. But if we do not trust others, we have to try to accomplish everything ourselves, including tasks for which we might have little or no expertise. Reliance upon others is open to disappointment as well as fulfillment, whereas reliance upon God always has positive results.

Though we might not hold it as a consistent belief, we might sometimes act as though we could manage our lives with reliance upon no one, even God. Perhaps we become so intently focused on completing the careful plans we have made that we forget that there are variables in life that no amount of planning can take into account. Or, we could lose sight or our many past experiences demonstrating how well things work out when we rely on God for inspiration, creativity, courage and other qualities of mind and heart that enable us to do our part of both acting upon others and receiving from them. Finally, we might not recall how frequently, when we raise our concerns to God, the right persons come into our lives, some of whom we consciously seek for their help, and others whose gracious assistance we could never have imagined would appear.

There are specific situations where we have the knowledge and experience that are required, and where we do not need someone else to act on our behalf. But we are always interdependent upon others in order to fulfill our purpose in life. Nothing we do, on our own or in conscious active conjunction with others, is even worth completing unless it is in some way relational, somehow part of a whole that includes others. We are created for, and made capable of, love. And, much as we are to properly love ourselves, we cannot even do that without reference to those who have been and are now, part of our lives, including our Creator.

We teach children to tie their own shoes, eat food on their own, and eventually make their own way in life to the extent that they are able. But they, and we who once were children, participate fully in life by motivation and spirit not just words and deeds. We are always growing in both giving and receiving guidance and inspiration as to how and why we speak and act, as well as for what we do. This ongoing life of relationships that is ours is a consequence of being created by God who is relational. Everything in our lives can add to or subtract from the quality of our relationships and the fulfillment of our purpose in life.

When our practical reliance upon God’s love for us includes even the briefest of consultations in making decisions about others upon whom to rely in specific instances, all things work for the best.

A statement about “keeping an open mind” is itself open to a wry comment that any kind of thought could enter, helpful or destructive, wise or unwise. We want to be selectively open to improvement, inspiration and creativity, not to whatever might inhibit our continuing growth and development. Thoughts come and go, some that are clearly a helpful part of our mental processes, while others have no positive relationship with our affairs. Selecting which thoughts to “own” and which to dismiss or ignore is a personal responsibility that cannot be delegated.

No matter how unrelated to reality some thoughts might be, they can also be quite attractive and entertaining. They can also provide all-too-easy distractions from our intended occupations. Deciding which thoughts to continue and which to stop is not always easy. Email messages might pop up while we are trying to focus our thoughts on a task to which we have committed ourselves. Cell-phones might notify us of a call or message while we are already in a conversation. Selective openness is not an attitude that we can fully set in place by a single act, but one that we can consciously develop over the whole course of our lives. Every day we have opportunities to practice selective openness in both familiar and unusual inner workings of our minds.

All the thoughts to which we give even partial attention have immediate consequences in our hearts. Fantasizing about a dinner menu while at the same time listening to someone describing their needs, is usually a somewhat conflictual interior movement which, upon reflection, can be recognized as a less than satisfying use of our mental capacities. Thoughts that we choose to allow in our minds have feelings attached to them, of resonance or dissonance, providing us with essential information as to whether or not our openness to the ideas is appropriate in our present circumstances.

Though what goes on in our minds might seem completely and solely our own business, the choices we make, even with regard to thoughts, affects not only our own well-being, but also that of others. If we take seriously our responsibilities towards ourselves and others, we do well to consider that we are never totally alone, even in the matter of selective openness. God is always personally present within our hearts, where we make choices about the ideas that move within us.

When we are negotiating the tension between thoughts of immediate gratification and of real love or between imagined control and realistic acceptance of reality, we will manage these affairs of our constant mental activity with much greater success by seeking grace, inspiration and assistance. We might have learned by reflecting on some of our life-long experience with both positive and negative patterns of thinking that choosing the direction of our thoughts is much easier when we seek the help of God and the support of those who are now with God and whose love for us we continue to trust.

God is very much at home within us, and is not surprised by anything that comes into our minds. But God is also more than happy to assist in the selections we make when we are “keeping an open mind.”

It is said that one of the first yogic sadhnas that Aurobindo Ghosh did under his guru Lele was to understand the nature of thought packets. By stilling his mind or emptying it of thought waves he could see the thought packets coming from external sources and by actively intervening as they came he could get rid of their effects on his mind. It was as if he created a filter system similar to that used by the present e-mail programs to get rid of spam mails. Similar process was described by Swami Vivekanand who said that when he concentrated on a person or an object, he could see the thought packets connected with them as writings on the blackboard or sky.

Brain is not only a receiver but also transmitter of thought packets. With practice of Sanyam or Yoga we can tune our brains to receive knowledge and thought packets at will and to send them to others. This sending and receiving of thought packets is governed by the strength of concentration. A deep thought, which is a product of Sanyam, can go to great distances via higher dimensions. For mundane thoughts the distance traveled by them is much less. Similarly Sanyam also allows us to get universal knowledge.

How can we perceive thought packets actively? Patanjali says that once the mind is completely calmed i.e. devoid of any thought waves then it becomes like a pure crystal, which takes up the color from the object, which is nearest to it. Probably this is what Aurobindo Ghosh did.

However this calming of the mind by removal or suppression of thought waves should be done carefully under the guidance of an expert guru because in the absence of strong will power and vivek or wisdom, the empty mind can be controlled by the dangerous beings or thoughts which may be nearest to it. The old saying, “An empty brain is a devil’s workshop”, is very apt.

Human emotions are a product of both internal working of our brain and external stimulus. Thought packets are a major external input and can make the mind work in a certain manner. Thus when we think about a certain event or a person the internal memory is reinforced by external thought packets. In quite a number of cases our thinking about somebody or an event may be triggered by external thought packets received. It stirs up memories which sometimes makes us act in a certain manner.

In order that we should not be unduly perturbed by external thoughts we should develop a mechanism to stop them. Though all of us to a lesser or greater degree have the ability to receive thought packets, however only evolved people like Yogis and highly sensitive people can perceive their source to stop them. This active perception of the sources of thought is called the ability to read somebody’s mind.

A simpler process for ordinary people to keep such thoughts at bay is to think deeply about certain things. Thinking deeply helps in occupying the brain and is like creating a shield for the mind so that it is not affected by external thoughts. This is also the genesis of Karma Yoga where one keeps on doing work without any desire for a reward. This helps the mind to focus fully on the work and there is little opportunity for it to be perturbed by any other external influence including thought packets.

Active reception of thought packets is a double-edged sword. It allows us to plan ahead since one can know what the other person is thinking. However it also informs us sometimes of the unsavory things that somebody might be thinking about us. This does not help in interpersonal relationships and hence sometimes ignorance is bliss.

This externality of thought is the genesis of human bond. Thus the people with whom we have close emotional bonds send their thought packets more frequently. Somehow our brain develops neural pathways which are more conducive to getting these thought packets easily. It develops a mechanism by which it immediately recognizes their thought signatures. These packets then make us act in a certain way and are the cause of karma or human web of love.

Whenever we give a thought to our mothers, we implicitly acknowledge truths about our humanity, especially our initial total dependence upon another person for our very existence. Besides the many and varied emotional associations, our thoughts can lead us to gratitude if we take a bit of time for reflection, and for considering who we are as unique individuals who began life within our mothers’ bodies.

Those who think of themselves as self-made individuals are usually taking into account only their years of conscious activity. We can be grateful for all that we have accomplished thus far in our lives, but our hearts expand with a deeper form of gratefulness when we consider the time in our lives before we can consciously remember, and reflect on the earliest nurturing and formation we surely received. We were cared for, no matter how we might now estimate the degree to which we were loved. When we were born, we were like computers without software or cell phones without batteries. Much that was essential was given to us, preparing us to take our own initiatives once we passed from infancy to childhood and beyond.

Thinking about mothers might bring us to a bit of genuine humility, in that we did not set ourselves into this world, nor did we arrange any of our earliest experiences. Rather than an admission of some weakness to be outgrown, our former total dependence offers a necessary insight for us to have an honest and fulfilling relationship with God. Just as it would make no sense to think or to say that our mothers had no effects upon us that are still relevant to our present lives, so also it would do us no good at all to imagine that God saw to it that we were born, and then had no part in our development.

The good news of dependence, of reflecting upon one aspect of “mother,” is that the responsibilities we have for our own lives is not absolute. None of us was or is a completely isolated individual. God does not meet up with us at some point in our lives, and perhaps come to know us and even to love us. Rather, God loved us into being, and has been, and is, part of every movement of human love ever directed towards us even from before we were born, and is the initiator of the very desire within us to grow, to know and to love.

Reflecting on the “together” aspect of our lives does not diminish either our freedom to choose or the significance of our decisions, but helps us to appreciate (which is a form of gratitude) the deepest value and most significant capacity of humans: to love and to be loved. We are most ourselves not only, and certainly not exclusively, when we act out of love in service to others, but also when we accept the great variety of ways in which we are loved. God is love: a community of interactive love, as Trinity. We are created in and for love for one another.

That we might more readily experience God’s love for us, God became human in Jesus Christ. How human? He has a mother, Mary.

Compassion is not a word that shows up very often in politics or world affairs. Yet, we certainly want all those who exercise authority over us to be understanding of our perspectives and to respect our feelings. We do not appreciate being confronted with an explicit or implicit attitude that someone else’s way is “the only way.” Though we cannot change how others think or behave, we can develop our own understanding and exercise of compassion through reflection upon our experiences.

We are busy persons, even if our present occupations do not have specific job-descriptions or titles. We cannot carefully monitor all the interactions with people that take place in our conversations as well as in our thoughts.  But we can think about them afterwards, and note the effects upon us of at least the more significant events that have occurred recently, especially the manner in which we related with others. Most likely, we have not been consciously observing ourselves at each and every moment, but the feelings we had about our participation remain with us and can be accessed, at least in part, if we pause and reflect for even a short period of time.

Because compassion comes from the heart, what we realize through our considerations leads us to appreciate our spirituality as it is made manifest. We can observe, for example, the effects upon us when we have thought or acted compassionately and also when we did not. Though we can be held accountable in human society for being courteous, no one can require that we feel with them, or otherwise enter into solidarity with them, accepting them as they are. Whenever we are compassionate, we participate freely in a spiritual movement that fosters unity among people rather than division.

We find in our experience a positive complementarity, whereby compassion for someone else follows naturally when we have come to the point of acknowledging and accepting our own limitations. Becoming more compassionate persons is desirable and appropriate; as we grow in this quality of relating with others, we not only benefit others by our caring attitude, but we gain something for ourselves as well. Treating others as we ourselves want to be treated deeply satisfies us.

If we reflect on God’s compassion for us as we confront our mortality, incompleteness, and less-than-perfect manner of relating with a world we cannot control, we find it easier to relate well with others who are different in many particulars, but who are just like us in our lack of absolute mastery over the circumstances of our lives. When we are aware of how we struggle with our own limitations, we are capable of accepting the same in others.

God was under no obligation to think and feel as we do, but in the person of Jesus Christ, God chose definitively to treat each of us with personal, abiding compassion. Becoming more compassionate with others is a fitting response to the way God treats us: pleasing to God and at the same time humanizing for us. Our humanity is, after all, made in the image and likeness of God.

One of the most common artistic images of Christmas portrays the child Jesus with his mother. Most of such scenes are beautiful, conveying the joy and peace of a mother lovingly caring for her child. That the child is also the Creator of all that exists, including his mother, does not change the human associations and feelings that accompany the depictions we view. If we let our imaginations accompany our reflection on what we see, we enter a mystery that connects us in our immediate present with the events that occurred more than two thousand years ago.

All of our experiences of family life are unique to us, whether our own or with those of friends, associates or even people we see but do not personally know. We constantly grow and change through interactions with one another and the world about us. Mothers and fathers live moment-to-moment with newborn children, requiring great amounts of support from others, constant adjustments to the needs of their sons or daughters, and continual inner struggles to balance their many responsibilities in life. A picture is static, but life is ever-changing.

Any Christmas image, for those who are interested and willing to do more than glance at a card, a crèche or their own favorite depiction, can serve as the beginning of an interactive, highly personalized experience that has real effects in the present. Familiar events in our lives become intertwined with those of Jesus and his historical contemporaries in a manner that is quite ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. The difference between this common “spiritual exercise” and spending time with parents and children we can see and hear is not that between fantasy and reality, but that between reality enhanced by faith and reality that is not.

When we relate with any person, whether infant or adult, we are changed, according to how we interact with varying degrees of attention and care. We are never quite the same person after having either given or reserved the fullness of our participation in any personal encounter. If we willingly and consciously engage in an imagined visit with the mother and child of the Christmas Season, we are not limited to a specific scene, but to any living and active part of the ongoing events, including words, gestures and actions, together with our thoughts, feelings and memories. We come as we are with all our life experiences to whatever is happening with Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and anyone else whom we might include.

With the help of both memory and imagination we can recall a recent meal that we have shared with someone, probably not in every detail, but in any of the aspects that are now of interest to us, even if we had not been aware of their significance at the time. In like manner, we can recall in the present, any possible human interchange of mother and child and the people and events in the environment of Bethlehem of Judea. In our minds and hearts, assisted by inspired use of our memory and imagination, we bring together the historical core reality of the events and the familiar details of our own lives, to a soul-satisfying unity.

Any time we wish, we can visit with mother and child or any other scene of God’s loving presence among us.

All of us struggle, and we struggle in three ways. First, sometimes we struggle simply to maintain ourselves, to stay healthy and stable, to stay normal, to not fall apart, to not have our lives unravel into chaos and depression. It takes real effort just to maintain our ordinary health, stability, and happiness. But, even as this is going on, another part of us is forever reaching upwards, struggling to grow, to achieve higher things, to not waste our riches and gifts, to live a life that is more admirable, noble, and altruistic.

Then, at another level, we struggle with a threatening darkness that surrounds and undergirds us. The complexities of life can overwhelm us leaving us feeling threatened, small, excluded, and insignificant. For this reason, a part of us is forever conscious that we stand one season, one breakdown, one lost relationship, one lost job, one death of a loved one, or one thing that we cannot even foresee, away from a descent into paralyzing depression, an illness, or a dark chaos that we cannot control. In short, we struggle to maintain ourselves, struggle to grow, and struggle to keep depression and death at bay. Because we struggle at these three levels, we need three kinds of spiritualities in our lives.

At one level, we need a spirituality of maintenance, that is, a spirituality that helps us to maintain our normal health, stability, and ordinariness. Too often spiritual teachings neglect this vital aspect of spirituality. Rather we are forever being challenged to grow, be better persons, to be better Christians, to simply be better than we are at present. That’s good, but it naively takes for granted that we are already healthy, stable, and strong enough to be challenged. And, as we know, many times this isn’t the case. There are times in our lives, when the best we can do is to hang on, not fall apart, and fight to regain again some health, stability, and strength in our lives, to simply get one foot in front of the next. At these times in our lives, challenge isn’t exactly what we need, rather we need to be given divine permission to feel what we’re feeling and we need to be given a warm hand to help draw us back towards health and strength. The challenge to grow comes later. And that challenge comes with an invitation that invites us upwards, towards a spirituality of the ascent. All spiritualities worthy of the name, stress the need to make a certain ascent, to grow beyond our immaturities, our laziness, our wounds, and the perennial hedonism and shallowness of our culture. The emphasis here is always to reach upward, beyond, towards the heavens, and towards all that is more noble, altruistic, compassionate, loving, admirable, and saintly. Much of classical Christian spirituality is a spirituality of the ascent, an invitation to something higher, an invitation to be true to what is deepest inside of us, namely, the Image and Likeness of God. Much of Jesus’ preaching invites us precisely to something higher. Confucius, one of the great moral teachers of all time, had a similar pedagogy, inviting people to look to beauty and goodness and to forever reach in that direction. In our own time, John Paul II used this very effectively in his appeal to young people, challenging them always to not settle for compromise or second-best, but to look always for something higher and more noble to give their lives to. But the challenge to growth also needs a spirituality of descent, a vision and a set of disciplines that point us not just towards the rising sun, but also towards the setting sun. We need a spirituality that doesn’t avoid or deny the complexities of life, the mad conspiracy of forces beyond us, the paralyzing losses and depressions in life, and the looming reality of sickness, diminishment, and death. Sometimes we can only grow by descending into that frightening underworld, where, like Jesus, we undergo a transformation by facing chaos, diminishment, darkness, satanic forces (whatever these may be), and death itself. In some ancient cultures this was called “sitting in the ashes” or “being a child of Saturn” (the archetypal planet of depression). As Christians we call this undergoing the paschal mystery. Whatever the name, all spiritualities worthy of the name will, at some time in your life, invite you to make a painful descent into the frightening underworld of chaos, depression, loss, insignificance, darkness, satanic forces, and death itself.

Life reveals itself above us and below us and on the flat plain of ordinariness. None of these may be ignored. And so we need always to maintain and steady ourselves, even as we reach upwards and sometimes allow ourselves to descent into darkness. And there’s still time to do all of this. As Rainer Marie Rilke once wrote:You are not dead yet. It is not too late to open your depths by plunging into them and drink in the life that reveals itself quietly there.

What’s Faith? Many world religions have their own definitions of faith. The standard definition of faith today, seems to be “belief without evidence”. Many people even cite Mark Twain in this regard, when he said “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” But, what do Christians mean when they use the word “Faith”? Yes, many religions have their own definition of faith, as do many people. However, the subject here today, is what is the biblical definition of Faith, and how are Christians supposed to use it?

Let me first clarify that I am making no attempt to argue for Existence of God, the Resurrection, or the validity of Christianity. I am merely trying to correct the common misconception of what biblical “faith” is, regardless of whether or not that particular Faith is true.

First, let us first understand what a basic, and general definition of “faith” is. First of all, faith is “trust” in something or someone, whether it be in religious manners, or otherwise. For example, a man could have faith the horse he bet on, to win the race: he trusts the horse to win. Allow me to reiterate, Faith is trust in something or someone. Now, how this “faith” is warranted is a different question. Some people have “blind faith”, where the person puts his trust in something without evidence, which would be akin to the man trusting the horse to win, even though he knows nothing of the horse’s stats, abilities, etc. The opposite, would be a man trusting the horse to win, after he has seen all the stats on it, and seen how the horse has demonstrated it’s reliability, thereby warranting his trust that it would most likely win So, what is the biblical definition of Faith?

In the New Testament, the word used for faith, is the Greek word “pistis”, which was actually a term sometimes used for “forensic evidence”, which is used in the works of Aristotle, for example. In the NT, do we see the apostles saying to the unbelievers “Follow us! Believe! Just have Faith!”?. Nope, instead, let us see what we do find, a clear example being Acts 2:22-36. If one reads it, we can see that Peter’s appeals for the validity of the Christian Faith were (1) the evidence of the miracles done by Jesus, (2) the empty tomb, and (3) the fulfillment of prophecy. He appealed to evidence for his claims of Christianity.

What we can see here, is that Peter clearly grounded his trust (faith) in Christianity, in evidence. It is not my intention here to argue that these things actually happened or that the evidences presented are valid, but rather, to show that the Bible used, and teaches faith to be “trust, warranted by evidence.

Again, my point here wasn’t to argue for the validity of Christianity, but rather to show what the Bible actually teaches on subject of faith. Biblically, Faith is supposed to be substantiated in evidence. There is not enough space here to answer all the points, but I hope some may understand that a Christian’s “faith” is not supposed to be “blind”.

These three simple words of advice from author and spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, connect us to the attentive and aware state we call mindfulness.  When we are mindful, we are aware of our body, our feelings, and our actions in the present moment.  Buddhism teaches that mindfulness is the path to freedom, wisdom, and enlightenment.

Try being mindful now.  Where are you sitting?  How does your seat feel?  Is any part of your body straining, tired, or in need of a small adjustment?  If so, bring your attention to that place.  Breathe into it and allow the body to adjust itself in order to feel a bit more relaxed.  Mindfulness opens channels for creativity, compassion, joy, and love.

I tend to become more mindful when I’m scared.  For example, I was thinking of the first time I bathed my infant daughter in 1964.  I had no experience with slippery, wailing, little red bodies.  I laid out a towel next to the sink.  I cleaned the sink carefully, and began to fill it with just-right warm water.  Checked again with the other hand just to be sure my skin on the first hand hadn’t acclimated and the water really was too hot.  Folded the wash cloth.  Unfolded the wash cloth for easier access.  Laid out a diaper and diaper pins next to the towel.  Finally, I opened the little holes in the lid on the bath powder.  Ready.

Gently cradling her melon-sized head and squirmy little wrinkled feet, I held my breath without realizing it.  She weighed only slightly more than five pounds, having arrived three weeks early, and been in the hospital for a week.  Now, the time had come for her first bath.  Gently the warm water flowed over her bottom, over her arms, her eyes opening wider, breath quiet.

Lesson of the Three-inch Clearance One evening not long ago, we had a family get- together at my house. Over dinner, my grown son, Gunther, started telling us about an incident that had happened to him a couple of days before. Hearing it, I couldn’t help being anxious for his safety, yet laughing at the same time.  Each of the experiences in his story is a good example of everyday mindfulness.  I’ll let him tell it in his own words.

“I was checking out my compost pile in the backyard last week.  I had so much stuff in the box that I was afraid the natural bacterial breakdown wouldn’t be fast enough.  I used to have a worm box in San Francisco, and so I decided to get some worms.

About an hour later, I was listening to the local college radio, KALX, and an advertisement from BayWorms.org came on. I checked out their Web site, and put in an order for a Vermi Start-up Kit. Within thirty minutes, I received a response from Mickey at BayWorms that I had been put on the waiting list for a Vermi Start-up Kit.  An hour later I received an email saying that my worm kit was ready!  Wow, fast service.  I could pick it up next Tuesday.  They said they’d be there around lunch-time.   On Tuesday I roped a co-worker, who commutes to work by bike, to join me for a trip, from where we work in Emeryville, to the community garden in Alameda, where BayWorms is located.

We mapped out our ride and set off on Mandela Parkway through West Oakland towards China town and….the Posey Tube! [Alameda is on an island near Oakland, California.]  After scratching our heads for ten minutes, we finally found the bicycle entrance into the hole known as the Tube. Bicycles have to travel along a raised walkway about thirty inches wide, with a curved tile wall on one side and fifty-mile-an-hour traffic on the other.  On my Xtracycle, the width of the handle bars leaves about three inches of clearance on either side.

Twenty yards into the Tube, my heart was in my throat.  Over the traffic noise, I yelled back at my co-worker, Chris, not daring to shift around to look at him. ‘Are you cool with this?’  Chris said, ‘Let’s do it.’

I took one big breath, tried to hold it, and continued into the depths.  At this point in the Tube, you can’t see the other end.  You’re just driving forward on faith that there will be an end–that you won’t choke on the fumes, and that you won’t flip over into the on-coming traffic.

Fortunately, we didn’t encounter anybody coming in the opposite direction.  Emerging from the Tube into a no-man’s strip of earth between the lanes entering the Tube, we started winding our way through the main streets of Alameda toward the garden.

After two miles of pedaling, we turned into the neighborhood that hosts the community garden.  At this point I looked over at Chris, and said, ‘If the marketing material for this ride wasn’t perfectly clear, let me tell you right now, that our final destination is a low-income housing project.’

After a detour into the Plowshares for Swords Community Garden (which is not where BayWorms is located), we arrived at the Alameda Point Community Garden.  Much to our chagrin, we saw no one there.  Chris asked if I had told them I was coming, and I said, ‘Yes! Mickey promised me he’d be here.’

By Anthony de Mello

Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence. You know, all mystics -Catholic, Christian, non-Christian, no matter what their theology, no matter what their religion — are unanimous on one thing: that all is well, all is well. Though everything is a mess, all is well. Strange paradox, to be sure. But, tragically, most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep. They are having a nightmare.

Last year on Spanish television I heard a story about this gentleman who knocks on his son’s door. “Jaime,” he says, “wake up!” Jaime answers, “I don’t want to get up, Papa.” The father shouts, “Get up, you have to go to school.” Jaime says, “I don’t want to go to school.” “Why not?” asks the father. “Three reasons,” says Jaime. “First, because it’s so dull; second, the kids tease me; and third, I hate school.”

And the father says, “Well, I am going to give you three reasons why you must go to school. First, because it is your duty; second, because you are forty-five years old, and third, because you are the headmaster.” Wake up, wake up! You’ve grown up. You’re too big to be asleep. Wake up! Stop playing with your toys.

Most people tell you they want to get out of kindergarten, but don’t believe them. Don’t believe them! All they want you to do is to mend their broken toys. “Give me back my wife. Give me back my job. Give me back my money. Give me back my reputation, my success.” This is what they want; they want their toys replaced. That’s all. Even the best psychologist will tell you that, that people don’t really want to be cured. What they want is relief; a cure is painful.

Waking up is unpleasant, you know. You are nice and comfortable in bed. It’s irritating to be woken up. That’s the reason the wise guru will not attempt to wake people up. I hope I’m going to be wise here and make no attempt whatsoever to wake you up if you are asleep. It is really none of my business, even though I say to you at times, “Wake up!” My business is to do my thing, to dance my dance. If you profit from it, fine; if you don’t, too bad! As the Arabs say, “The nature of rain is the same, but it makes thorns grow in the marshes and flowers in the gardens.”