Knowledge and Mystery

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During our short lifetime on earth, many of us spend our time searching for knowledge, truth and meaning.  In the West, this includes trying to stay abreast of the rapid advances in science and technology.  By doing so, we are able to ensure that our knowledge base is up-to-date and that those we love (including ourselves) are given the best in health, employment, communication and lifestyle.  And, to some degree this is true.  However, in achieving this goal (or focusing too much attention on it), perhaps we have created a dualistic relationship with an important complementary aspect of being human, namely mystery.  Embracing mystery, and understanding that those more intricate aspects of our world are unknown (and, in some cases, unknowable) is achievable for the human being.  We have the consciousness to contemplate life beyond our own experiences and to wonder at the mysteries of the earth, the universe and even entities that may lie beyond the dimensions of this universe.

In every generation there are people who allow mystery, wonder, spirituality to sit comfortably alongside the accepted knowledge-base of their time.  These individuals are aware that such things give meaning to the human life when experienced in balance with the acquisition of information.  They welcome knowledge from the unconscious mind through dreams and meditation.  They allow animals, plants and the earth to impact their lives on a daily basis and expect to learn from these interactions.  And, they regularly find time for solitary stillness to focus their attention on unknowing, wonder and awe.  Some even discover they are not alone.

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Life and Death

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I am continuing the series that discusses a selection of polar opposites and takes a look at whether there has to be a duality between them.  In this entry I want to look at Life and Death from a slightly different viewpoint.  I will admit up front that I am no expert on death, having had very few close people in my life die, other than a handful of elderly relatives for whom death seemed to be a natural progression of their existence, albeit a sad one for those who remained.  Still, I have a desire to know more about mortality, mine and others, and perhaps that is because I have not had to encounter it in its full power.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a walk, with a difference, to the top of a mountain. As we walked towards the summit of Mt. Disappointment, we went through a peculiarly fertile patch of forest.  It was on the weather side of the mountain and so perhaps received more rainfall than neighbouring areas, and it probably saw very little winter sun.  The ground was thick with the remains of thousands of years of falling leaves, bark and even tree trunks.  The decomposing mass of vegetation was being consumed by fungi, bacteria and insects.  Our feet were surrounded by the remains of so much death and decay and decomposition.

And yet this death was then the source of life for innumerable species of flora and fauna.  Fungi, ferns, flowers and trees had found life and made home in this rich and fertile environment.  Larger animals fed on the countless insects that had made home amongst the rich source of food.

So what was it?  Was it a cemetery or a maternity ward?  Of course the answer was that it was both.  Death had given way to life and it was impossible to tell where one stopped and the other began.  The Buddhists are familiar with this and teach on the cycle of rebirth.  We in the West have mixed views on death and its finality.  Some see it as a doorway to a better existence while others see it as the final step in our mortal journey.

Today I don’t want to touch on the subject of human death, but rather look at those minor “deaths” that we experience throughout our lives.  Of friendships, of opportunities, of our vocation. Like a few weeks ago, I don’t want to offer empty platitudes, because some of these experiences can be grievous.  But I do want to offer the idea that the death of a previous known experience can, like the forest, become fertile ground for new beginnings.

Perhaps that is what sets us apart from the animals –  our ability to look beyond our immediate circumstances and glimpse a new future.

 

Darkness and Light

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Last time we looked at Night and Day as a metaphor for our spiritual journey and now I want to talk about a similar theme: Darkness and Light.  The reason for this is that I had a minor realisation a few weeks ago and wanted to explore it further.

I have always known in the physical world that there is no duality between light and darkness, that darkness is just the absence of light. Light comes from photons given off by excited atoms or by chemical and nuclear reactions, but darkness has no particle to transport it around.  And yet in some of the world’s religions there is seen to be a force of darkness that opposes the force of light (perhaps God, Love or The Universe).  Is there any parallel there at all?

My realisation was to consider the world from the viewpoint of a source of light.  From this view there will be colour and contrast, shades of grey and varied tones.  But there won’t be a beam of darkness into the world creating “shadows” of its own.  This then made me wonder why we are so intent on binary dualism.  Why, if someone has one view, someone else has to have an opposing view?

The problem is that we like binary dualism.  We like to pit one extreme against another extreme.  It makes for better politics and media reporting.  So we jump into opposing camps in all sorts of imaginary arguments and are apparently forced to be fully attached to one or the other.  Sometimes we may not wish to be so committed to one side or the other, and sometimes there is no “opposite” argument or stance, really just a differing of views.  It is a bit like saying what is the opposite of walking – is it running or sitting?

In the same way in our spirituality, we can be tempted to classify everything into the opposing camps of good and evil.  Instead we could look at people as at various stages of enlightenment, seeing the journey from different angles, called to travel different paths.  This frees us up from deciding if others are “good” or “evil”, and allows us to only compare ourselves with the One.

I am not 100% sure of the parallels between my revelation about the nature of light and its application to the spiritual powers but it did make me aware of avoiding getting sucked in to the perils of binary dualism.

Let there be light!

Night and Day

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You may have seen an image representing the Earth with the Sun’s rays illuminating half and the other half in darkness.  It is designed to show us how day and night move across the globe as a result of the Earth’s rotation, and how the effect changes with our position in our orbit around the Sun. Here is one example:

At any one moment, there are people in darkness and people in light, people moving from light to darkness and people moving from darkness to light.  And, if you wait for the seasons to change, you will see places that are covered with light, seemingly endlessly, and other places experiencing enduring darkness.  Of course, as we continue our orbit, we then move back to a position of more equality and then beyond to a more extreme situation again.

Stepping outside of our very local view of night and day allows us to gain a different perspective on our own journey and orbit.  There are times when we experience light and are able to sense things clearly, and other times when we feel covered in darkness.  Then there are times when we move from one into the other.

It seems to be a natural part of the human condition that we experience a range of situations and environments, that we move through moods and feelings.  It has been this way for all of recorded history.  We know in the plant kingdom that such changes (which we call the seasons) promote growth and allow for fruit to develop and new generations of plants to be created.  In our human world it is probably the same, although we often baulk at the “winters” and “frosty nights” of our own journey.

I am not sure where to take these thoughts.  I do not like simplistic platitudes, nor do I want to give vague and general encouragements that do not allow for the complexities of our lived experiences.  Strangely, I just want to share one line from a John Denver song and I hope that it finds a home with someone reading this:

“Some days are diamonds, some days are stone”

As you view the sun’s passage across the sky today, I hope you find perspective for where you are in your own orbit.

misty mountains

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Land of Misty Mountains

monsoonal rains

infinity of water

in sea, from sky

mist, rain, rivers

on bodies, sweat

then rain, then sweat.

 

Land of constant change

menopausal woman

passion, opinion, change

search for balance

search for meaning

search for truth

enlightenment.

 

Land of acceptance

contentment maybe

or resignation

old and new dance

time-rich culture

some poor; quite

but poverty?

 

Land of kindness

hands on flesh

man/woman equal

children smile

respect for the old

‘sawatdee’

welcome stranger.

 

Land of Misty Mountains

find the truth

and be free;

enlightenment

and be loved

‘khob khan’

thank you

 

(Dedicated to Thailand, after a recent visit)

Not a mountain top experience

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A friend and I went walking to the top of a small mountain in a local State park.  The drive was scenic and comfortable and we looked forward to a 2km walk up a gentle grade to the summit.  The only thing that gave us pause was the name of the mountain but we were keen to go because neither of us had been there before.  As we walked we saw the obvious signs of the presence of a wombat – scratching along the path and a king-sized burrow under a tree.  The weather was fine and we were looking forward to a view from the top across to our city and possibly even the bay beyond.

When we reached the top we looked around for a view and discovered why this mountain had earned its name – Mt. Disappointment*.  There was such a thick profusion of trees that we could see no more than 10 metres in front of us, and there was no clear path to the top of a cliff, like on so many other mountain tops.  In fact, we were only aware that we had reached the summit because of the information board that had been installed there.  We spent a few minutes in quiet reflection and then began our descent back to the carpark.  A beautiful place and pleasant walk but a destination that did not inspire you to recommend that others visit.

On the way home I pondered this event against those “mountain top experiences” that we are supposed to experience as part of our spiritual journey.  They are usually moments when we sense the Divine or we feel a new sense of purpose, and they are usually memorable.  In this case, however, we were not really aware that we were on the mountain top when we got there and we could have returned to our car without any sense of achievement or significance.

I wondered whether there are times like that for us, times that seem prosaic as we go through them but that have more significance as we look back upon them.  Perhaps we go through mountain top experiences in a variety of different ways.  Perhaps even times of disappointment can become times of significance.

Just wondering…

(*) Hume and Hovell were Australian explorers that had been charged with finding a land route from New South Wales to Melbourne.  As they got close to their destination they chose to climb a modest mountain to see if they could catch sight of the sea and know that their journey was nearly over.  Dense bush on the mountain delayed them for 4 days, eventually forcing them to return the way they had come and to try a route through the lowlands.  That is why the mountain was named Mt. Disappointment.

the first blossom

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By Lyn Beattie, dedicated to Van Gogh and ‘the seasons’ exhibition, Melboune NIV 2017

 

The first blossom dawned from its place of safety

its hidden beauty now visible to the crisp world

a sign that spring had at last come to the earth

She was the forerunner; the angelic messenger

sent to announce the time to Adama and the heirs

 

She was delicate and yet, strong as a warrior

Her intricate inner work had been long and hard

And now, the warmth of the early spring sun

would gently heal her and bring restoration

She was ready to be seen, ready to speak

 

The sun gently called moisture from the earth

Quietly, the mist spoke out ‘it’s a new day’

A floral perfume arose from her centre

calling other blossoms out, to open anew

calling others, ‘it is safe to believe’

 

She stopped, to drink in the stillness

She paused, to feel the sacred moment

She was not alone

she had never been alone

she had never been forsaken

 

Time sighed and the sun stood still awhile

She bowed her head to the soil of the earth

acknowledged the Great Loving Creator

saw the attentive and powerful Oneness

gave thanks for kindness, for intimacy

 

It is a new day; a new beginning

‘Arise, my beautiful one and come

‘the winter is past and flowers appear on the earth

‘once more, the season for singing is here

‘the voice of the turtledove can now be heard

Van Gogh’s Seasons

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This week I took the opportunity to view the Van Gogh Seasons exhibition at the NGV, Melbourne.  What an extraordinary man Vincent Van Gogh was.  What a blessing to humankind!  His astute and sensitive nature was an unusual beacon during the time of his life (1853-1890) and, even now, his thinking and his art provide light to the forerunners of human society.

It is impossible to view Van Gogh’s art and read his quotes without gaining an appreciation for his depth of character, spirituality and emotional integrity.  Because I am a writer, I will focus on the written quotes displayed throughout this exhibition – extracts taken from the artist’s copious letters written to his brother, Theo.

Prior to becoming an artist, Vincent explored a number of different vocations including art dealer, preacher and lay-evangelist.  During these years, his love of art, nature and spirituality were refined and sharpened such that, once he chose to create images on canvas, he was able to ‘see’ what needed to be seen.

His work has an amazing sense of the essence of place and, looking at his art, evokes a genuine experience of insight and emotion.  The light, the color, the lines and brushstrokes all initiate a strong sensory response; it is possible to enter into the places represented on canvas and smell the smells, feel the temperature and moisture in the air.  Van Gogh had the masterful ability of enhancing reality through his art, just as a good fiction writer can do the same with words if they are a talented wordsmith.

Let me share with you some of his quotes regarding the seasons:

‘It is something to be deep in the snow in winter, to be deep in the yellow leaves in autumn, to be deep in the ripe wheat in summer, to be deep in the grass in spring,’ (Van Gogh 1885)

Melting snow was falling.  I got up in the night to look at the landscape – never, never has nature appeared so touching and sensitive to me’ (1889)

‘If one looks closely, one sees that there’s a kind of gospel on the first day of spring’  (1883)

‘I myself almost don’t know which season I like best; I believe all of them, equally well’ (1873)

 

And now, let’s consider some of his thinking that goes a little deeper so that we may understand the type of man Van Gogh became:

‘And yet it was only while painting that I noticed how much light there still was in the darkness’ (1882)

‘It requires a certain dose of inspiration, a ray from on high which doesn’t belong to us, to do beautiful things’ (1890)

‘One must work long and hard to arrive at the truthful.’  (1882)

 ‘ … where people say of my work, that man feels deeply and that man feels subtly’  (1882)

 

Thank you Vincent Van Gogh for the heritage of wisdom you have given to us through your art and your writing.  We honour you and the life you led.

 

Compassion

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God describes him/herself to a man called Moses saying, ‘I AM who I AM’ and ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness’.

So, what is compassion?  I think of it as keeping company in passion; feeling with another person (or ourselves) and staying physically and emotionally present with one another.  Compassion is a part of love that renounces fear/awkwardness in order to prevent a person feeling abandoned or alone.  The expression of compassion relies on courage to take part in the feelings of another soul and a commitment to understanding the importance of emotions.

This song is one of the most beautiful expressions of compassion (God’s) that I have come across.  Enjoy!

Kindness

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Kindness is soft and strong.  It is accepting of where people are and who they are.  It does not judge, but instead respects thoughts and emotions.  It acknowledges the good, the bad, the easy, the hard.  When shown kindness, a person feels safe, is healed, is accepted.  Kindness shows that one is listened to and heard.  Kindness is generous.  It can also be fierce! (‘Because I love you …’).  Kindness sometimes means being vulnerable and risking the loss of things or people.  A gift of kindness can mean loss while also delivering the most incredible peace.

Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit of God.  It is an expression of grace and a means by which we can love one another and get along together giving us a real experience of dwelling with God and each other.  Kindness feels warm, refreshing and sustaining.  It often brings with it a strong sense of being valued and belonging.

Kindness looks like the Good Samaritan; the person who understands what it means to love God, love themselves and love others (their neighbours).  When Christ’s listeners asked ‘Who is my neighbour?’ (i.e. Who should I be kind to?), Christ answered with the story of the Good Samaritan and a question, ‘Which person in the story do you think was a neighbour?’

Kindness is often recognized by actions and sometimes magnified by attending to the small intricate things in the life of another.  Developing a kind thought-life and affirming others with kind words are also important expressions of love.  Other virtues that accompany kindness include generosity, integrity, steadfastness and compassion.  We should be able to receive kindness as well as give kindness and it should be a virtue devoid of superiority or inferiority.  Self-righteousness, selfishness and judgementalism oppose and hinder kindness.  Kindness can be used as an agent of change when we ask the question: ‘How can I bring kindness, love, grace into this awkward (or challenging, or volatile) situation?’

Why be kind? Because our God is kind.

The Hebrew sacred text says,

‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.’ (Jer 31:3)

The story of Ruth as told in the bible is full of kindness and in Colossians we are instructed to be kind:

‘Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.’ (Col 3:12-14)

Shalom, and may we remember to consider the Lovingkindness of God often (Psalm 107:43) and not conceal it from others (Psalm 40:10).