The Daily Muse
Thoughts from an Austin Garden -- January 2009
Last update: January 20 Obama and Reinhold Niebuhr
White wing dove on our of our cypress trees.
January 10 - morning
The following piece was printed today i the Austin American-Statesman as the first in a series of essays written by Austinites about thier "faith journeys." I hope that you enjoy reading it. Here is the link to the newspaper's version.
When I listen to others describe their "faith
journeys," I find that I am often moved by the seemingly trivial details of
their stories. Though some might speak of divine intervention, most describe how
ordinary circumstances and things helped them see their lives in a different
The stuff of life can speak to us even from ages past. I recently went to an exhibit of artifacts from ancient Israel. The artifacts dated from the period that witnessed the birth of both Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism. Among the objects on display were dozens of small clay lamps imprinted with religious symbols. Here were the earthen vessels of illumination: "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet." I imagined them in humble rooms, in trembling hands. These primitive oil lamps were evidence of both physical necessity and spiritual hunger. Life always shines through in the details.
So, what is this stuff called "spirit" and how is it shaped? I imagine my spiritual life as a pot on a potter's wheel; it is ever turning, never finished, yet it holds the reverence and gratitude I feel for this life of joys and sorrows. I am crafting this vessel from the humus to which we humans will all one day return. One thing I've learned as a gardener is that you have to start with the stuff under your feet.
The first handful of dirt that I gathered came from the garden at my family's home in the Hudson River Valley of upstate New York. Seen through the eyes of a loved child, my parent's garden glowed with immanence — each snowfall, every flower, the fireflies of summer evenings, and the myriad colors of autumn all seemed like portals to a vast and beautiful realm. I believed that this world was to be trusted, that it had secrets to share. My introduction to religion seemed equally benign, I was raised in the Catholic Church and felt the immediacy of the Holy Family: Jesus the radiant child, the Mother's sheltering arms, and the incense and Latin-shrouded mystery of the Father. Though my humble clay pot might be fragile, it is fired by reverence and wonder.
Eventually, I had to leave the garden of innocence. Don't we all? The sense of wonder that had been lovingly cultivated by my family was replaced by images of another world. Our first television, purchased in the early 1960s, tempted me with things to be desired over snowfalls and flowers. The television also introduced me to the news, which meant that assassinations, riots and the threat of all-consuming war were now a part of my world. As childhood made its way into adolescence, I scooped up handfuls of doubt, fear and selfishness and added them to my earthy mix.
Like many of my contemporaries, I was in full-fledged revolt by the age of 15. The stories I had "been fed" did not add up, the world was a tempest of hypocrisy and injustices committed in the name of the "good" and "God." Fortunately, however, several adults challenged me to rise above the easy conformity of sullen rebellion. One of them, a high school English teacher, introduced me to a collection of haiku poetry. Her fingerprints now grace my spinning lump of clay.
I fell in love with haiku — they seemed like perfect distillations of those moments when the ordinary intersects with the eternal. I later discovered that the spiritual roots of Japanese haiku were embedded in Zen Buddhism. Determined to learn about Buddhism, I dove into the paradoxical koans or riddles used by the Zen masters to teach their students to think with their hearts. One of these koans changed my life: "The plum tree, dwindling, contains less of the spring; but the garden is wider, and holds more of the moon." After years of longing for a spirituality that spoke as clearly as my childhood garden, here it was, a concrete reminder that our lives and the life of all creation fit together in a beautiful cycle. Beyond that, it reminded me that we had to stop being so relentlessly anxious about what is coming up next and be present for the present — the now. Yes, there is beauty in the spring of every life — but there is beauty in the bare branches of autumn, too. Many years later, I am especially thankful for that handful of earth.
Over time I returned to the Judeo-Christian tradition looking for guidance about justice, mercy and how we should order our lives together. Most recently, I have felt a very strong connection to the idea that "God is the Good We Do," a theology forwarded in a book by that title by Austinite, Michael Benedikt. In a particularly moving passage, Benedikt describes a sunny afternoon in his garden — a scene where he bears witness to the many ordinary acts of goodness unfolding around him in his neighborhood. As I read this poetic account of the ordinary, an image occurred to me of layer upon layer of good deeds piling up over history. I imagined us all standing on hills made of patience, honesty, compassion and kindness — the dust and clay of human virtue. Today, as I hold my unfinished clay pot I lift it in reverent gratitude for the simple things — the outward manifestations of that inner light shining unto and under our feet.
A recent picture with "Kai" the son of dear friends.
January 11 - morning
I received the following email yesterday and was so touched I thought I would share it with you. My thanks to Linda for her kind words and insights...
Good Morning Tom,
I just visited your beautiful Garden of the Soul web site--what a lovely serene place to spend some time on a cold Saturday morning.
I also wanted to comment on your column in today's Austin American-Statesman (1/10/09). The simple elegance of your words when you described your own spiritual journey touched me deeply . I especially resonated with your description of ancient clay artifacts and the feelings they evoke. You see, I'm an archeologist.
When I study as ancient artifact assemblage, I look for the clues of daily life in the small details of what was left behind. My specialty is ceramics so clay speaks to me also. When I hold a 1000 year old pot in my hands and can still feel the finger impressions of the person who made it, I am energetically connected not only to the object but to the potter. I might not know the potter's name or be able to see what he/she looked like, but I see the product of a creative spirit and I feel that energy. In an area of the southwest where I worked for a number of years (we call them the Mimbres people, but we don't know what they called themselves), potters made the most incredible array of ceramic vessels, decorated with the most beautiful naturalistic drawings depicting every day life in their world. From the early ethnographic records and from a variety of art forms, we know that artifacts such as these tell us stories of how they lived and what was important to them. We also know that Native Americans didn't see themselves as separate from the environment they lived in and their social organization was much more integrated than ours. Generally speaking, their political, social, religious, and everyday life didn't get divided up into nice neat little compartments. Those things were all part of the whole and they operated holistically-in one beautiful cycle of life. They were present in every moment of every day. For me, this is one the lessons we can learn from these ancient people.
Thank you for seeing the beautiful in the world and sharing those images.
January 13 - morning
Art - and spirit - without fingerprints...
...an excerpt from"Rivers and Tides" a film about Andy Goldsworthy.
January 20 - morning Obama and Reinhold Niebuhr
I awoke early excited about what awaits us all on this most historic day. I'd like to ask you all to join me in prayer for the safety of our new President, his beautiful family, and for our nation at this perilous and deeply troubled time in our history. Rarely have we seen the confluence of so much hope and so much fear.
There is no doubt in my mind that we will face many more difficulties in the days ahead. I pray for our strength - a strength inspired by hope but tempered by the reality of the dangers we face. For many years we have been living as if there were no tomorrow: neglectful of that which had been entrusted to us - the beautiful blue and green planet that is our home and the imperfect democracy which has sustained us. I pray that we take responsibility for our own actions and for the world we will be leaving to those who are too young to remember this day.
Could we endure yet one more crushing blow to our hopes? Especially now, when our nation is so vulnerable? I'd like to suggest that we can if we follow the example set by our new President, a man who has placed himself in harms way because he feels the call of duty - of responsibility. Rarely have I witnessed a man who seems so balanced - someone who understands both the necessity of hope and the ever present reality of despair and danger. He truly stands as a symbol of the best things in American life - the power to overcome the circumstances of life, someone who trusts that there truly is a higher calling to which we can all aspire.
Aspire - I think Barack Obama understands the power of aspiration. Why aspiration? Because in his very balanced soul I think he knows that attaining that ultimate justice or perfection of society will always be beyond us, that our hopes must be matched by a humility that acknowledges that all that we can do is try. The nobility of human life is best seen when we recognize the gap between our greatest hopes and our present day realities and yet we try... we aspire.
Notably, President Obama has cited Reinhold Niebuhr as the philosopher who has had the greatest impact on his life. I have written about Niebuhr before - he was the great American Theologian of the 20th century and had a powerful influence on Martin Luther King and the early Civil Rights movement. Niebuhr's teachings about the "spiritual discipline against resentment" have helped shape my own thinking as well.
I recently read an essay by Niebuhr titled, Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith. Here is an excerpt:
"...Let man stand at any point in human history, even in a society which has realized his present dreams of justice, and if he surveys the human problem profoundly he will see that every perfection which he has achieved points beyond itself to a greater perfection, and that this greater perfection throws light upon his sins and imperfections. He will feel in that tension between what is and what ought to be the very glory of life, and will come to know that the perfection which eludes him is not only a human possibility and impossibility but a divine fact...
...These paradoxes are in the spirit of great religion. The mystery of life is comprehended in meaning, though no human statement of the meaning can fully resolve the mystery. The tragedy of life is recognized, but faith prevents tragedy from being pure tragedy. Perplexity remains, but there is no perplexity unto despair. Evil is neither accepted as inevitable nor regarded as proof of the meaninglessness of life. Gratitude and contrition are mingled, which means that life is both appreciated and challenged. To such faith the generations are bound to return after they have pursued the mirages in the desert to which they are tempted from time to time by the illusions of particular eras."
If you want to understand and appreciate Barack Obama's remarkable balance, his poise and depth, re-read that quote a few times... again, a quote from the man who helped shape his world view and faith.
The man who introduced me to Niebuhr's work was the great social critic, Christopher Lasch. In an an "Afterward" added to his best known book, The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch wrote the following words:
"The best defenses against the terrors of existence are the homely comforts of love, work, and family life which connect us to a world that is independent of our wishes yet responsive to our needs... ...Love and work enable each of us to explore a small corner of the world and to come to accept it on its own terms. But our society tends to devalue small comforts or else expect too much of them. Our standards of 'creative, meaningful work' are too exalted to survive disappointment. Our ideal of 'true romance' puts an impossible burden on personal relationships. We demand too much of life, too little of ourselves."
Today, I expect to hear President Obama speak to us of hope - a hope rooted in a profound humility that calls us to "the glory of life" - our responsibility for our time together here on this earth. "We demand too much of life, too little of ourselves." If we take that message to heart we can and will endure both the crushing blows and routine disappointments that await us.
Peace to you all and to our nation. Amen.