Standing on our own two feet
A Reflection for July 5, 2020
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
[This homily is partly based on this video of Thomas Merton’s last lecture. I highly commend it to you…]
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:30)
On December 8, 1968, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Trappist monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton died after giving a lecture at an interfaith conference outside of Bangkok, Thailand. He was there to study and share with Buddhist monastics, and he was invited to reflect on key themes that he saw in the monastic life–especially laid alongside the tumultuous events of that time period in the late 1960s. What did an intentional practice of faith look like in these days of social reorientation and political unrest? The more things change the more they stay the same.
In the last hours of his life, Merton shared a story with those gathered there that he had heard from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a key leader in Buddhism’s interaction with the West, and in visits with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Trungpa Rinpoche shared with him the story of a Tibetan Buddhist abbot fleeing his monastery to escape the onslaught of Chinese troops. As the abbot left, he met another monk who was carefully leading twenty-five yaks that were all loaded down with treasures from the monastery and other things the monk deemed “essential.”
The abbot and monk spoke with one another, and the abbot shared that he would not join the caravan of these so-called treasures. There had been a shift in his understanding of what is important, and, as Merton shared the story, the abbot expressed that “everyone must stand on their own two feet.” The abbot left by himself and crossed into India, poor but alive, and the monk with the twenty-five yaks loaded with treasure was captured by the soldiers and never seen again.
Merton’s point to those gathered at the conference was that monasticism’s focus–we might say the authentic focus of an intentional practice of faith–was to cultivate inner transformation so that the entire way one lives in the world is reoriented. The transformation of the heart is nurtured by key disciplines and a life of simplicity and prayer–all being grounded in an awareness of the Spirit’s indwelling presence. Only one hour after sharing these thoughts with those at the conference, Merton died in an accidental electrocution after stepping out of the shower.
There is actually a video recording of this last lecture, and every time I watch it, his words haunt me: “everyone must stand on their own two feet.” Everyone must own their spiritual practice, dedicate herself or himself to a practice of prayer, commitment, simplicity, and compassion rather than, to draw on the image, focus merely on leading twenty-five yaks of so-called “treasures” and losing one’s life, one’s soul, in the process. The lesson the abbot offered to the younger monk was that we cannot rely on the external structures of the institution itself, as beautiful as the treasures are. The point of any religious tradition is to nurture each person to own their practice of faith, to delve more deeply into their prayers, so that each heart is transformed more and more, in Christian terms, into the likeness of Christ.
Our worship services, our liturgies, our traditions–every aspect of our common life–are means to an end which is the transformation of our hearts and the conversion of our lives.
We are struggling so much right now as a society. The truth is that this struggle has always been with us, and I would dare to say that the core question we are facing is this: “What do you really consider most important in your life?” What are you giving your life to? What do you desire? And, if we can dare ask it, what are the yaks you continue to try to load down with things you deem “essential?”
This question of what we desire is so important, and I commend to you the readings from the Song of Solomon for this morning. If you want to be “pushed” to a deeper level in your practice of faith around just what is really invited in the intimate connection between your soul and God’s heart, take some time with this book! If you have a certain staid, sanitized image of God that keeps God’s distance and dispenses religious tokens, then you will be challenged to see intimate images like leaping over the hills like a young stag. We hear words like
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
How are you, how is each one of us, owning the practice of our faith at this moment? How do we dare to name our desires in times like these? How are we taking responsibility for our practice, in the light of institutional pressures all around?
In a clergy call last week, over a hundred of us in our diocese gathered on Zoom with the bishop and the diocesan staff to reflect one what we can and cannot do at this moment. We shared our grief and struggle, and this growing recognition that we are truly in a time of enormous transition into a new way–I would say a fuller, more authentic way–of “being Church.” We are not going back, as it were; rather, we are transitioning into a new way of being Christian community.
I deeply appreciate the bishop’s heart-centered counsel: that we cannot rely on the external structures of the church, as an institution, to hold us, anymore. The truth is that we have over-relied on them for far too long, and now that we have been removed from such external supports, it is painful to look around and realize how we truly must own our practice of faith. We look around for something or someone to blame, or something to relive our pressure–something or someone to do our work for us. I believe this is the invitation we have at this moment: to stand on our own two feet and own our practice of faith.
I heard this truth echoed in a call this week with a dear soul in the parish. As we were talking about her own physical limits and our shared inability to do what we want to do, etc., when it comes to “church,” she offered this wisdom: maybe it is time for us all to do what we can do, for ourselves. We simply cannot do certain things as we did, but that doesn’t mean that we are not supposed to practice our faith. So, I had the same message from Merton’s video, the bishop’s counsel, and the wisdom of a parishioner. I’m paying attention.
So, again we are called to ask ourselves “What do we truly desire?” How are we owning our practice of faith? How are we resisting a level of deeper ownership and practice? If we can be honest and sit with ourselves, what is the driving motivator that guides our actions in our lives? The preservation of a certain way of being the institutional church? How many yaks loaded down with so-called “treasures” are we trying to drag with us, believing that is what practicing our faith really means?
These days are painful on so many levels, because we continue to be removed from patterns and forms that have nurtured us. We cannot celebrate Holy Communion with one another, and that breaks my heart. I miss being able to share the bread and wine, to share Christ’s Body and Blood. But, to set this here for a later discussion, let us not become so bitter about not being able to celebrate Communion that we fail to see how we are celebrating Communion. Do you get what I am trying to say? Let us hold two things in tandem at this moment: a deep grief over not being able to share in Christ’s Body and Blood and a gratitude that we are, ourselves, Christ’s Body and Blood. Grace and gratitude held in the same place. And, another note: the Eucharist does not have an expiration date. That last Eucharist that I celebrated on Sunday, March 8 is still nourishing me, even though it has been 119 days since we celebrated together. The inward and spiritual grace of that outward and visible sign is still transforming my soul.
What is our true desire as a parish community? Just what treasure are we chained to? Can we begin asking–or keep asking–these deeply transformational questions? Can we risk naming our desire to rely on the external structures to do our work for us? Can we name out loud how we have inherited a consumer-driven model of ministry that is focused on developing products rather than nurturing presence?
As we have said before, for too long the Church relied on these external structures and nurtured this sense of being members in a “club” that offers certain products. That bill has come due.
If we have a “product” to offer anyone, it is this: our “product” as a spiritual community is transformed human hearts that are so grounded in this awareness of God’s presence that we live differently and experience wholeness. This, friends, is the heart of what Jesus taught, and it is the lesson that we must learn. We must stand on our own two feet and own our practice of faith. And here’s the thing: I cannot transform your heart for you, nor you mine. We each are called to pay attention and practice, even as we support one another as a spiritual community. Indeed, that is what authentic spiritual community looks like: holding one another accountable for our inner work so that our outer lives are transformed.
Think back to the encounter that Jesus had with blind Bartimaeus. Remember, he’s blind, right? When they meet, Jesus takes a moment to ask him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The disciples are stunned, because, well, he’s blind. Why doesn’t Jesus just assume he knows what he wants and formulate a plan or product to offer him that will relieve his anxiety? But Jesus is doing something vitally important: he is inviting Bartimaeus to own his practice of faith. He needs to invest. Batimaeus must search his own heart and ask himself what he really desires. Jesus cannot assume anything. He cannot take ownership for Bartimaeus’ spiritual life. And what does he ask for? For his sight to be restored. This is such a powerful story for us to meditate on these days.
Jesus gave Bartimaeus room to stand on his own two feet, even though he struggled at first because his sight was limited. Jesus never infantalized anyone, and he never assumed. He listened and he journeyed alongside. He encouraged and he reminded all those he met that God’s grace is real–and that they were called to participate with it.
When we take a moment to become aware of our desires and our misplaced focus, those yaks loaded with what we thought were most important, perhaps we can hear Jesus’ words deeper in our hearts when he says:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
What burdens have we been carrying that it is time to set down? What yaks loaded with supposed treasure is it time to release from their own yokes so that we can find freedom for our souls? On this Independence Day weekend, what do we still need independence or freedom from so that our souls can truly sing? What do we need to name and release so that we truly can stand on our own two feet?
These are the questions I am asking for myself these days, and I wonder if they stir anything in your heart.