Baccalaureate Sermon 2007
"In Search of a Self We Meant to Lose"
The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel
Like you, the exiles Jeremiah writes to were uprooted from home; from all comfort of certainty and the familiar. Inner and outer transformation are like that--and rarely pain free. These restless exiles were being asked to uncurl the fingers and loosen the grip. To relinquish, neither clinging to how things used to be nor thinking life begins once they arrive at their destination. They were being asked to be friendly with the discomfort and unknowns of the Now. That takes courage, doesn’t it? This relinquish-ment doesn’t mean passivity nor failing to plan for the future. Surrender is what happens to our insides, helping us move from fear and reaction to skillful action; from closed consciousness to open readiness for possibilities where we thought there were none.
It’s like The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who, in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle, collapsed to his knees on the kitchen floor. Amid adversity including bomb threats to his home, he tells God he’s too tired, weak, and afraid to lead anymore. Dr. King later describes how it was in that grace-filled moment of naming and handing over his weakness that all was transmuted into strength, courage and peace.1
When anxious Israelites are asked to loosen themselves amid discomfort and uncertainty, it’s an invitation to find life and the holy in places they least want to look. Amid the seemingly forsaken. In what Spanish poet, St. John of the Cross, called the Dark Night of the Soul when one’s best effort, brilliance, and answers fall apart, and there is nothing left to do but let the soul breathe in the darkness. To get quiet and still enough until night vision comes. I remember trying that as a child. Maneuvering through my parent’s divorce and other terrors, I remember my new step-dad sitting with me on the basement steps teaching me what he learned in Viet Nam about seeing in the dark. It required sitting still with the darkness and fear. Softening the eyes. Adjusting perception, mind, and heart until perceiving a subtle luminous quality to things in the dark. These exiles were being asked to do likewise. Too loosen ways of seeing and thinking in order to notice openings of light and life where they thought there was none. To plant gardens in places they thought were lifeless. To fall in love. Make life. To even loosen perception of situations and people they perceive as enemy, seeking the welfare of the city in which they are exiled, praying on that people’s behalf (Jer. 29:7).
It’s like the martial art form called Aikido in which, instead of trying to defeat or dominate your opponent, you move in closer. You don’t resist the opponents force, but rather yield to overcome. You working with it until a type of dance develops, taking that adversity and from it creatively making something new.2
My guess is that, on this day life thrusts you out of here into ambiguity and unknowns, your biggest opponent will lie within yourself. I sense this when asking about plans for your life and panic creeps across many of your beautiful faces. Our Taoist text says anxiety stirs muddy waters.3 But it’s hard to patiently wait for our mud to settle, isn’t it? Or sit with the terrors until night vision comes. To stay loose, not being antagonistic with fear and uncertainty when adversity hits, or plans fall apart…or aren’t ready to be born. Instead of struggling against it, or numbing oneself with various substances or distractions, to breathe, lean into those feelings of fear, anxiety or pain with loving kindness. To relinquish and breathe.
It’s like when we were children, and a parent or swim instructor was teaching us how to float. Remember what they said as you thrashed about and clung for dear life? “Just relax. If only you would just relax.” Of course you thought they were insane and trying to kill you! Surely, if you’d relax you’d drown. But it was the tensing, resisting and trying to control that made you start to sink. In time, through non-clinging to fear, your teacher, and thoughts about how things aught to be--you opened yourself. And from that loosening, you discovered buoyancy. Once you got the hang of that, you may have even discovered a deep joy, peace, and sense of at-one-ment with the water which was once your enemy. Of resting upon it on a moonlit starry night, humbly sensing oneness with life as you float facing heavenward, riding it’s waves. Loosening self led to losing self. Losing self into something larger.
As an Episcopal priest, some of my favorite words from our Book of Common Prayer liturgy is the phrase, “may the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life.” That’s not eternal life only on the other side of death, but here. The eternal Now this side of heaven. Like when standing before the humbly knee-buckling beauty of nature. Or a fabulous painting. Or when looking at molecules or crystal patterns under a microscope. Or holding a babe. It’s being among the crowd and green of Wrigley Field, at least before the Cubbies botch it again. It’s when scales fall from your eyes as you find yourself reconciled. Or falling in love. Or at the bed side of a loved one as he takes his last breath. Or as you gently look up from your arm to watch Red Cross nurses collected blood in a room full of donors. Glimpsing Jesus in the donor chair beside you. Or waiting to be fed in the soup kitchen food line. Or on the ten o’clock news as the twenty year old soldier from Tipton whose body has been brought home from Iraq. Or on the face of the one my government deems an enemy. Both Eastern and Western spirituality speak of this letting go that shifts us from thinking consciousness to being consciousness and sense of a unified field. That is, a self-transcendence and union within the web of life and infinite life force many of us call God. A radical monotheism or oneness of life. A medieval Christian mystic named Mechtchild described this as wakefulness to all things in the being of God, and God in all beings. Our Hindu text described this realization of oneness and illusion of separateness as leading to delight in the welfare of all beings; of every act of service being a form of worship; an offering to God poured out by God.4 The Abrahamic faiths speak of this including our hadith of the prophet Muhammad.5 Jewish mysticism speaks of this as the holy spark within all, and our purpose being tikun olam—helping God heal, mend, and reconcile the shards of a broken world.6
I asked a bunch of you seniors about the meaning and purpose of your life. Amid all the searching for self that happens in the college years, the majority of those asked spoke of self-transcendence: That is, an awareness of how, beneath all the illusion of separation, is interrelatedness; oneness with all people and life on this fragile planet—some called this infinite life force and web of connectedness ‘God’; others did not. But both named how, from an awareness of interrelatedness and union, flows a sense of responsibility and desire to lead a life of serving the welfare of all beings.
Christian and Buddhist traditions speak of self-emptying in which there is a dying to small self or what Fr. Keating and others called false self so that this union or True Self may emerge. It’s similar to the refiners fire of what ancient Israel and biblical figures like Jacob, Moses, Hagar, and Christ experienced through trials in the desert. In Native American spirituality this is expressed as spirit quest when one journeys into the wilderness to obtain wisdom--not for self-actualization--but transcending of self for your community’s well being. Many Christians do this during Lent as we follow a self-emptying Christ into an interior desert for forty days through a variety of spiritual disciplines. Utterly unimpressed by our credentials, the desert strips the masks we wear to protect the frantic ego or small self; it exposes the temptations and attachments to accomplishments, brilliance, appearance, prestige, power, possessions. As if our being or worth is measured by doing rather than being; as if its any less or more than that of others. The silence of the desert also exposes our compulsive attachments to thought patterns like perfectionist over striving, or the need to always be right which mask an underlying insecurity. In these forty days the ego isn’t eliminated—those of us who have known abusive forms of self-sacrifice understand why that’s important. Instead, ego gets scooched over to the side, and its’ attachments loosened, so that, as St. John of the Cross, Quakers, and others put it, the sacred which dwells at our center can shine through. Like wiping grime off a window pain, a more luminous, translucent self emerges reflecting God’s light and peace, not only in our doing but in our very being. Your being as blessing. My guess is that you’ve encountered people who seem luminous. You’ve seen them among those with very little in terms of status or possessions. And among those who have it and generously give it to aid people and places like this college. You’ve encountered these luminous lives in peace makers. Bridge builders. In those whose gentle loving and joy reveals tracing of having passed through the Dark Night.
Parker Palmer writes that “good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place of knowing we are at one with [each] another”. These are people I describe as having “night vision” for leading the rest of us through the dark, or brokenness, because they have been there and know the way.7 Let me say a few more things about this leadership, and maneuvering in the dark, since many of you named servant leadership for a more humane world as your life’s purpose. It’s also central to John Wesley and Methodism founding of colleges like Cornell.
As already noted, spirituality of leadership requires self examination or owning our shadow. As Parker Palmer puts it, “by failing to look at our shadows, we feed a dangerous delusion that leaders too often indulge; that our efforts are always well intended, our power is always benign, and the problem is always in those difficult people whom we are trying to lead!8 So we must meet and own the darkness we carry within ourselves to make sure it’s Light and not shadow we give off. This self-examination is necessary not only for individuals but political parties and nations; science and technology, economics and business, and religious institutions. We live in a world where eight hundred million people go to bed hungry each day. Every three seconds a child dies from disease. Women do two-thirds of the world’s manual labor yet have 1% of profits. There are one billion people in the world who lack clean water and satisfactory sanitation.9 Global warming approaches tipping point. Organized religion, which has spawned social justice and peace movements, colleges, hospitals, social work, love, caring for the oppressed and strangers, have also been used throughout history as a sword. Yet given the atrocities of the 20th century, secularism sure doesn’t get off the hook. Instead of pointing fingers, we can all humbly own our shadow and do better.
Second, by owning and loosening the small self or shadow, we not only tap True Self or recognition of our oneness amid difference. Like that confused, scared kid on the basement steps, we learn to become comfortable with the uncomfortable as best we can. I hope you can hone this skill for its usually in dark places where your work of healing a world will be found.
A couple of months ago a room full of Phi Kappa Nu fraternity brothers practiced this skill through Mindfulness silent meditation. For those of you thinking these guys only drinks beer and tears up campus lawns when moving massive rocks, let’s pause for a moment to picture twenty-something of them trying to shed small self, getting quiet, and tapping their spiritual core. I blew off a peace rally to practice Mindfulness breath meditation with them, know that these guys—regardless of political orientation--will be, and are, agents of healing and peace. Together we practiced calming the anxious mind or what a friend calls her “inner Chihuahua”--the constant mental shatter and worry that’s like Donkey in the movie Shrek. To not be on auto-pilot with thoughts and feelings but mindful of the auto-pilot. To get silent in order to practice noticing and watching the story lines running through our heads rather than habitually being caught up in them. Of being in the Now by returning to awareness of the breath 100,000 times like training a puppy to stay. 10 Doing this in daily silent sitting even for five minutes and then through out the day when waiting in line, walking to class, or when conflicts rise so we can learn skillful action rather than frantic reaction. So we can avoid lousy choices by letting our mud settle and allowing night vision to come. To sit with the brokenness or fear, and accepting what’s there. Controlling what’s controllable, and letting go of the rest.
In his book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness , Joshua Wolf Shenk contends that Lincoln could bare the burden of the presidency amid civil war because he had a lifetime of seeing and maneuvering in the dark. Of looking trouble straight in the eye.11 And as scholar Matthew Pinsker has observed, ‘Mediocre presidents run from bad news. Great presidents face it.’12
Lincoln was no church-goer, however he read the Bible, taking particular comfort in the ambiguity, adversity, and non-easy answers named by The Book of Job. Unlike other politicians both then and today, Lincoln refused to engage in partisan statements which assumed God’s favor or will. Yet, like Mary in our Gospel who said ‘yes’ to a larger purpose than self though it was incomprehensible and frightening, Lincoln repeatedly called himself an “instrument” of a larger power. A larger power charged with “so vast, and so sacred a trust” that “he felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances on his own life, in what might follow .”13
In The Bhagavad-Gita a young leader named Arjuna also grapples with leadership amid war. Arjuna asks Krishna to drive him into the open space between the two armies to survey the combatants. He is overwhelmed with emotion concerning what will be the death of so many brave warriors. Arjuna’s duty as warrior and military leader is to fight yet it is in direct conflict with spiritual knowing that all beings are one with is own being, and within the being of God. This is the plot of this ancient epic yet the story is about the interior battle all of us face. As spiritual advisor, Krishna doesn’t tell the young leader what to do [By the way, your faculty and staff mentors know you find this an annoying response when you ask what we think you should do with your life. We’re not trying to be difficult. Instead, like Krishna, or Harry Potter’s Dumbledore, Dante’s Virgil, or the Velveteen Rabbit’s Skin Horse, our role as mentors is to remind you that you can survive the terrors of the journey by moving through, not around, the fear.]. Instead he helps the young leader explore ways of being rather that doing to help him arrive at right action. He is encouraged to detach from ego or small self desires, like making decisions based on whether they would result in praise and reward.14 To detach from notions of success and anxiety about failure. To watch for self-deception by humbly knowing his own shadow—any ingrained selfishness which covers over our natural luminosity –something Stephen Mitchell notes as being as ferocious as any external war.15
There is a little known form of ancient Christianity called “desert tradition” which values contemplative silence in ways normally associate with Eastern meditation. A wisdom tale from this Christian tradition involves a disciple asking a desert monk for wisdom. The old man says “Go to the cemetery and curse the dead.” The disciple goes off and stands among the graves shouting insults. He returns and tells the master he completed the task. “Did the dead say anything to you?” the old man asks. “Not a word,” says the disciple. “Now go to the cemetery and praise the dead.” The young man runs off, gives a eulogy about their greatness, then hurries back to the old man. “How was it this time? Did they have anything to say?” The disciple answers, “They were silent as before.” After a period of silence, the old man says, “That is how you have to be—like the dead; beyond cursing and praise, unaffected by the opinions of others.”
Friends, in life you aren’t always going to be liked. And that’s going to be hard for you people pleaser types. Nor will life always be easy. Or your best effort rewarded and praised. There will be work place and family turmoils. Health scares and weakness. Mess ups and embarrassments. Occasions of your choosing and non-choosing when--because of your sense of purpose and an education which taught you to see things from a variety of perspectives--you will be thrust into leadership amid political, ideological, religious, racial, ethnic, economic and other conflict. In those times, I pray you tap into the sacred base of your being—into Spirit dwelling within you, breathing and staying amid the uncertainty. Even peer into darkness, or the eyes of your enemy, glimpsing the face of God.
The angel spoke to that luminous Godbearer named Mary, saying “Don’t be afraid!” Clothing ourselves in her story as we did the exiles, a desert monk, Lincoln, Arjuna, (and even the Phi Kappa Nus!), we hear echo of those angelic words. “Don’t be afraid.” You are filled with grace. You are blessed. The Lord is with you. For while the sacred transcends you, it also fills you, praying and growing silently within beyond any doing or striving on your part. Like Mary, in your pregnant waiting, and relinquishment, may you say ‘yes’ to being part of something larger than self 16 , knowing you are a vessel for birthing and incarnating God’s light, reconciling love, peace, beauty, and hope in the world. For as a medieval Christian mystic put it in an age as plagued and fragile as our own, we are all mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.
Class of 2007, go forth with night vision. As luminous God bearers go forth burning with the fire of love.
1Three nights later his home was bombed. King tells how, strangely, he could accept the word of the bombing calmly. God had given him a new strength and trust; interior resources for facing the storm [from Chp. 13, God Is Able in The Strength To Love as complied by editor James Washington in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Wirings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1986) p. 509.].
2Gratitude for this and other insights into meditation and its benefits from Dr. Beverly Klugg,, head of Mindfulness Stress Reduction at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Iowa City, Iowa
3Tao Te Ching 15-16.
4Bhagavad Gita translated by Stephen Mitchell (NY: Three Rivers Press), section 4.24.
5What actions are most excellent? To gladden the heart of a human being. To feed the hungry. To help the afflicted. To lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful. To remove the wrongs of the injured. That person is the most beloved of God who does most good to God’s creatures.
6Isaac Luria -- Jewish mysticism. See Scholem, Gershom. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (NY: Schocken Books, 1965) pp. 108-117.
7Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (SF: Jossey-Bass, 2000), pp. 80-81.
8Ibid, p. 79.
9Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts-Schori’s talk on The U.N.’s Millenium Development Goals to eradicate poverty, Episcopal Diocese of Iowa Clergy Conference, Spring 2007.
10Dr. Beverly Klugg,
11Shenk, Joshua Wolf. Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (NY/Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., p. 171). Thanks to Lori Erickson for drawing my attention to this book. And for spiritual musings about its application to our own life.
13Ibid, p. 197.
14Bhagavad Gita section 4:14-24; 5:24-26.
15Ibid, Introduction p. 16. See also Mohandas Gandhi’s commentary on The Gita in the appendix of Mitchell’s translation.
16The Gospel according to St. Luke 1:26-38. See also her Magnificat, particularly—“My soul magnifies the Lord” (:47)--which, as Pope Benedict XVI notes in his first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est , expresses her enter entire program for life:
“Not setting herself at the centre, but leaving space for God, who is encountered both in prayer and in service of neighbour—only then does goodness enter the world. Mary's greatness consists in the fact that she wants to magnify God, not herself. She is lowly: her only desire is to be the handmaid of the Lord (cf. Lk 1:38, 48). She knows that she will only contribute to the salvation of the world if, rather than carrying out her own projects, she places herself completely at the disposal of God's initiatives. Mary is a woman of hope: only because she believes in God's promises and awaits the salvation of Israel, can the angel visit her and call her to the decisive service of these promises. Mary is a woman of faith: “Blessed are you who believed”, Elizabeth says to her (cf. Lk 1:45). -ENCYCLICAL LETTER DEUS CARITAS EST OF THE SUPREME PONTIFF BENEDICT XVI TO THE BISHOPS, PRIESTS, AND DEACONS, MEN AND WOMEN RELIGIOUS, AND ALL THE LAY FAITHFUL ON CHRISTIAN LOVE, Given in Rome, at Saint Peter's, on 25 December, the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, in the year 2005.