Winter
2011

Remembrance as a Spiritual Practice

There is a polish for everything.
and the polish for the heart
is remembrance of The One.

Consider this story of a 3-year old girl.

The little girl is firstborn and only child. Now her mother is pregnant again. The little girl is excited about having a new brother. Within a few hours of the parents’ bringing the new baby home, the girl makes a request: she wants to be alone with her new brother in his room with the door shut. Her parents are uneasy. Then they remember they have installed an intercom system in the baby’s room. They could honor their daughter’s request and, if they heard any sign of difficulty, be in the baby’s room in an instant. So they let the little girl go into the baby’s room and shut the door and they moved quickly to the intercom listening station. They first heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room. They imagined her standing over the baby’s crib. Then they heard her say to her three-day-old brother, “Tell me about God — I’ve almost forgotten.”(1)

What does it mean to remember God, to remember the One, to remember the Whole? I am coming to think of the Whole as the place where three circles meet and overlap:

  1. The Circle that is the Source, “whose center is everywhere
    and whose circumference nowhere,”(2)

  2. the Circle of All Life, and

  3. the Circle of Self.

Each circle mirrors the others. Each, in its own way, is intertwined with the others. In this oneness, we can say, as was said in ancient China: “All people are my brothers and sisters and all things are my companions.”(3)

At the start of our life we have a certain simplicity. Call it a first naiveté.(4)  At the end of a well-lived life, we return to simplicity. Call it a second naiveté. This second simplicity contains hard-won wisdom. Still, something of the child leads the way. “Tell me about God, I’ve almost forgotten.”

Suppose we are like children blowing bubbles. Each bubble a notion of God. The bubbles may be small or large. Think of a bubble big enough to enfold the universe. It would still not be large enough! Think of bursting each bubble and in the fleeting moment of the bubble bursting, catching a glimpse in wonder, awe, and grateful praise of the Mystery of mysteries. Beyond the beyond and more intimate than the center of my heart. In this defused, open awareness the sacred is present.


Remembrance and the Source

What is it to remember the Source, the One, the unity on which all depends? Think of Source as that which joins all things, sustains all things, attracts all things.

  • When we approach with love, the Source appears as a person. Always larger than the best human we know.
  • When we approach with awareness of nature, the Source appears as a force moving through all things and allowing us to participate. The Way opens before us and beneath us and all about us.
  • When we approach with the awareness that all is gift, the Source, Circle of Life and my deep Self manifest in gratefulness and joy.
  • When we approach with peace within and peace without, each circle shines with the wisdom of reconciliation, returning us and all beings to the One.

Let us speak of “The All-Inclusive One.”(5) A oneness beyond and within all things, excluding none and welcoming all. Such a oneness helps us think of each being as a microcosm, mysteriously mirroring the whole. For certain purposes, each being can be seen as alone – a unique perspective on the whole from a never-to-be repeated “place in the whole.” Just as truly, each can be seen as all-one — as manifesting the whole from a unique perspective.


From Oneness to Presence

Nicolas Herman was born in France in the year 1611.(6) At age eighteen, he had a vision. He was looking at a tree in the midst of winter-- bare and still. Suddenly, he saw, as in a vision, the tree manifesting its life, becoming green with spring and then bearing fruit in summer. In that moment, he knew God and God’s providential love and care. Six years later, Nicolas entered a Carmelite monastery in Paris and took the religious name, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Having but little education, he entered as a lay brother and worked mainly in the monastery kitchen as a cook, until his death at age eighty.

Brother Lawrence embodied the practice of the presence of God.(7) He realized that God is present always – in the depth of the heart. All that is needed is to remember that. To remember we are thus companioned. We are known with forgiveness and gentleness. We are loved always and without measure. Then our response is to do all we do for the sake of such a God, for the love of such a friend, beyond thought of reward or punishment, praise or blame. Brother Lawrence tells us: “We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”(8)

Brother Lawrence developed, over the years, a single-minded attentiveness both at prayer and in the midst of daily activities. Until the two became one. Until all became prayer. All became a “to and fro” of converse with the One. “I began to live as if there were no one save God and me in the world,” Lawrence remarked.(9)

An Eastern Orthodox monk was once asked what monks do. He replied: “We fall and we get up again.” Lawrence witnesses to a God who is gentle and loving, who calls him to remember when he becomes distracted or forgetful. Such gentle reminders were enough for the friendship to continue and grow.

As he truly practiced the fond awareness of God, Brother Lawrence came to see that every detail of his life possessed surpassing value. He saw himself cooking meals, running errands, scrubbing pots, and enduring the scorn of the world -- alongside God. One of his most famous sayings refers to his kitchen:

The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.(10)

The Sufis – the mystics of Islam – would have understood Lawrence well. I think of Sufi master, Abu Sai’d who extends the core practice of remembrance fully into the everyday world. He writes: “The true saint is one who walks amongst the people, and eats and dwells with them, and buys and sells in the market, and marries and socializes, yet never forgets God for a single moment.”(11)


Many names and No Names

What I am here calling the Source has many names and no adequate name. Remembrance begins with names. Names arise in the context of religious or wisdom traditions.

In Judaism, there is the Shema (or Sh'ma): “Hear [O] Israel, The Lord (YHVH) our God, the Lord (YHVH) is one.”(12) In Judaism, one keeps silent and speaks. Keeps silent in not speaking the name that the Holy One gave to Moses (YHVH). Yet speaks using other forms of address such as Adonai (Lord / Ineffible One), Shalom (Peace), Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the Universe) and HaRachman (Merciful One).(13)

From the Torah, two instructions: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) “And love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) These two were called by Jesus the Two Great Commandments.(14) To remember God, we can well begin here.

While vigorously affirming oneness, Christians see the One relationally -- as the Father (the Source, perhaps even Source beyond Source), the Son (seen humanly in the icon of Jesus) and in the Spirit of Love that dwells in all as the very life breath of life. No wonder that Dante imaged the Source as the Sun – noting its life-giving, light-giving and warmth-giving aspects.

Islam also begins with oneness. La ilaha illa’ llah. There is no god but God. There is no reality save Reality Itself. Indeed Islam sees all the prophets as coming with the message of oneness, of tawhid.(15)

And in the East where the natural world is prized, learning from nature becomes a Way to align with the power of the whole and to return to our true nature. And we are reminded that even to speak of the Tao or the Way is only a pointer. “The Tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao.”(16)


Remembrance and Repetition

Turning and returning — the power of repetition. Repetition of a chant, a prayer, words of a melody, movements of a dance. Coordinating movement with attention to the breath – all these are ways to call us back to the present and to “that which matters” in those times when we forget.

The spiritual disciplines use many names. This can remind us that each name is but a finger pointing to the moon (as the Zen tradition would have it). Repeating word or gesture or pattern is a way to stay focused and not go back to sleep! Repetition is the road to embodiment.(17)

In Islam, there are 99 names of God and Sufis will often chant several of them with appropriate movements at what they call zikr (pronounced zicker) which is a communal ritual of remembering God. One Sufi group has this advice:

“The moment you recognize that you are struggling on any level,
stop, return to the Remembrance,
increase your connection to your heart,
receive guidance and insight, take inspired action.
This will return you to the flow.”(18)

Remembrance and the Circle of Life

A teacher says to Johnny: “Pay attention.” Johnny replied: “I am paying attention. I’m paying attention to everything!”

What does it mean to remember God? Does it not involve remembering everything? Remembering everything is indeed an exercise that only a child or a lover or a fool would attempt. How much do you love me? “This much,” says the child, holding out her arms as far as they will go. So small and yet encompassing all. Like the heart, so small and yet capable of encompassing all.

To remember everything might seem unbearably difficult as if I were seeking to remember a very long list of things. Yet that is not how Johnny sees it. Suppose he is correct. Suppose that everything is so intimately interconnected that paying attention to one thing draws with it all things, not in focused enumeration but in a kind of peripheral sense of being companioned by all. Suppose that everything is arriving at each moment without effort, that the whole is present in each part. Suppose that everything is passing away at each moment, without effort, joyfully awaiting the next wonder.


Three Glimpses of the Tao

Let us begin with nature as the Tao (pronounced Dow), meaning the Way of the Universe. Here are three glimpses of the Tao:

  • The first glimpse is in nature.
  • The second glimpse is in meditative mind.
  • The third glimpse is in the behavior of the masters.

First let us look to nature. Here is a passage from the Tao Te Ching:

The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.(19)
 
Like water, the power of nature finds ways around and through. We can learn much from this “watercourse way,” as Alan Watts calls it.(20) We can learn simplification and skillful strategy. How to act without provoking reaction. How to lead in such a way that when the task is done, people will say: “We did it ourselves.”

The Tao is both spacious and special. Vast beyond universes, yet present in the particular flower, or sunset, or face of the loved one. Mysterious and yet very concrete, right before us, touched in what we touch.

The second glimpse of the Tao comes from Meditative mind

As group leader, John Heider puts it: “Tao means how: how things happen, how things work. . . . Tao cannot be defined but Tao can be known. The method is meditation, or being aware of what is happening. By being aware of what is happening, I begin to sense how it is happening. I begin to sense Tao.”(21)

The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection.
The water has no mind to receive their image.(22)

This is such a wonderful image of meditative mind. Thoughts and sensations, desires and emotions are like the geese. They arise and fly over the mirror of meditative mind. The mind does not invite them in. The mind does not push them out. They come and go. We observe their comings and goings, their appearing and disappearing. We are not led to repress them. Nor are we led compulsively to act them out. Observing them we sense the patterns of the Tao.

The third glimpse of the Tao is in the behavior of the masters

Here is what the Tao Te Ching says about them: (chapter 15):

The ancient masters were subtle, mysterious, profound, responsive.
The depth of their knowledge is unfathomable.
Because it is unfathomable,
All we can do is describe their appearance.
Watchful, like people crossing a winter stream.
Alert, like persons aware of danger.
Courteous, like visiting guests.
Yielding, like ice about to melt.
Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.
Hollow, like caves.
Opaque, like muddy pools.

The Old Master says:

Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfillment.
Not seeking fulfillment, they are not swayed by desire for change.(23)

The ten thousand things rise and fall
while the self watches their return.
They grow and flourish and then return to the source.
Returning to the source is stillness,
which is the way of nature.(24)


Remembrance and the Self

Is there a way of remembering one’s life that integrates the three circles: my God, my world and my life? I believe there is.

First such a remembering will be in the present tense.(25) As Jorge Luis Borge says: “Only in the present do things happen.” Only in the present am I aware of where I am on the spiral path. Only in the present am I able to choose what to return to and how to see it. Perhaps I return to forgive and to seek forgiveness -- for what I have done and failed to do. Perhaps I return to recognize that greed, opposition and ignorance clouded and constricted my heart.(26) Perhaps I understand that, even when I saw more clearly, I was unskillful in my response. As I increase mindfulness and develop sensitivity and skill, may I benefit myself and all given to my care.

Second, the Navajo introduce intergenerational time by reminding us that we stand in the midst of seven generations: behind us, our parents and their parents and their parents; before us, our children and their children and their children. When we act, we need only ask two questions: Will this honor the ancestors? Will this serve the children?

I am beginning to see my life over generations. As I do, I become even more mysterious to myself. I glimpse only dimly how my ancestors live in me and how future generations also are gifted or wounded by what I do. And I come little by little to realize that my ancestors include the human ones and all other forms of life that conspire (that is breathe together) to make this world habitable and ever so beautiful.

I realize I have roiled the waters through my unskillful ways. I enter the stillness at the core of the great heart of us all. The waters remain waters of unknowing. Yet I sense in the unknown a presence of love and compassion, joy and peace.(27) The Circle of the Source, the Circle of Life and The Circle of my deepest Self are co-present. And I can say with Lady Julian of Norwich that “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”(28)

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Notes

1 I take this story with a few slight edits from Marcus Borg. He recounts the tale in his book, The Heart of Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 1989), p. 113.

2 2. I think of this quote as emerging in the middle ages. Alain of Lille has a version, perhaps deriving from hermetic sources: “God is an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” It is sometimes quoted as “God is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

3 The phrase comes from the West Wall Inscription from the office of Chang Tsai, an 11th century administrator in China which reads: “Heaven is my father and earth is my mother and even such a small creature as I find an intimate place in its midst. That which extends throughout the universe I regard as my body. That which directs the universe I regard as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters. And all things are my companions.” See William Theodore de Bary, Wing-Tsit Chan and Burton Watson, Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. I (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 469.

4 I take the terms first and second naiveté from the philosopher Paul Recoeur.

5 I speak of the One as the All Inclusive One because it is all too easy to think of the Ultimate as named in one particular tradition as calling only to enter that tradition. This is a partial oneness at best; the cause of dissension and disunity at worst.

6 There is some doubt about the exact year. I choose 1611 following the editors of The Practice of the Presence of God. See details below. Others put the date three years later.

7 My source is the slim volume by Brother Lawrence, entitled The Practice of the Presence of God, and The Spiritual Maxims (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2006). This work is supposed to have been written down by M. Beaufort, Vicar to the Archbishop of Paris, by whose recommendation the conversations and letters were published.

8 Ibid., p. 61.

9 Ibid., p. 17.

10 Ibid., pp. 60-61.

11 Quoted in Mohammad Ali Jamnia and Mojdey Bayat, Under the Sufi’s Cloak: Stories of Abu Sa’id and His Mystical Teachings (Beltsville, MD: Writers’ Inc. International, 1995), p. 95. I modify slightly for inclusiveness.

12 Shema Israel, Adonai Ehloheinu, Adonai Echod. “Hear [O] Israel, The Lord (YHVH) our God, the Lord (YHVH) is one.”

13 I take this from Mary Blye Howe’s Sitting with the Sufis (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2005), p. 31, where she is speaking of meditation practice of a Jewish Renewal group, Hesha Abrams, in Texas.

14 See Mark 12:29-31; Matthew 22:37-40; Luke 10:25-28.

15 See Sachiro Murata and William C. Chittick, The Vision of Islam (New York: Paragon House, 1994).

16 See Tao Te Ching, a new translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), chapter one.

17 In the Catholic Christianity, I think of use of the rosary and also the revival of the Centering Prayer. See Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington et al., Centering Prayer in Daily Life and Ministry, ed. Gustave Reininger (New York: Continuum, 1998). In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, I think of the Jesus prayer -- “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” -- as it is used to develop the habit of praying always. See G.E. H Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Bishop Kallistos Ware, Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts with selections annotated and explained by Allyne Smith (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2006). I also think of the American Black congregations where repetition in spirituals and in preaching is such a powerful way of focusing the mind and heart.

18 From “Leading from Inner Wisdom” by LionHeart Consulting, Inc. This was brought to my attention years ago by a friend, Greg Lee. For more on the organization, see http://www.lionhrt.com/index.htm

19 See Tao Te Ching (as above), chapter 8.

20 The phrase is from Alan Watts. See Alan Watts, with the collaboration of Al Chung-liang Huang, Tao: The Watercourse Way (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975).

21 John Heider, The Tao of Leadership (New York: Bantam, 1986), chapter one, p. 1.

22 See Zenrin Kushu, quoted in Nancy Wilson Ross, The World of Zen (New York: Vintage Books Division of Random House, 1960), p.258.

23 See Tao Te Ching (as above), chapter 15.

24 See Tao Te Ching (as above), chapter 16.

25 I am engaged here in expanding the present to include all that is — in time and beyond time. This is a point of view we can only catch sight of as if out of the corner of our eye or in the stillness beneath sound. I think here of Boethius’ sense of eternity as the complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life. This is not life going on a long, long time, it is “ [to embrace] the whole of everlasting life in one simultaneous present. (Boethius, Consolation, V.VI.)

26 These are what are called in Buddhism the three poisons: greed (or clinging), hate (or condemning) and ignorance (or identifying with less than the whole).

27 I explore these four in my book, The Fourfold Path to Wholeness: A Compass for the Heart (Chapel Hill, NC: Second Journey Publications, 2010).

28 T.S. Eliot uses these lines at the end of his “Four Quartets.” See T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934/1952), p. 145.