The Rock of My Bitterness

Recently, I had the opportunity to lead the senior ministry team of The Riverside Church on a tour of Central Park’s north end. Having met at the Harlem Meer, we ventured over to the Conservatory Garden, before meandering along the paths that connect the forts, and then down past Lasker RinkIMG_1398 and Pool. When we reached the parking lot behind the complex, a few participants thought we would head up the drive to our left so that we could walk the main road to which it led. As soon as they looked to the right, however, they knew that was not the plan at all for before them was the most magnificent arch in the park: Huddlestone. Like the other 35 arches and bridges, this one was designed to provide an appropriate transition for what lie ahead, in this case, The North Woods, one of the most natural areas within the park. Needing to communicate something of the rustic beauty that lies ahead, Huddlestone Arch consists of boulders, each sitting one on another, with no mortar cementing them into place.

The rocks’ mottled coloring, the plants growing through the cracks, the uneven but beautiful lines drew us near, teasing us with a glimpse of what was to come.

We paused for a moment in collective awe, and then, knowing only gravity _MG_4590and pressure prevented the boulders from tumbling down, we entered, only to stop again. There, embedded in the wall was a rock that some estimates place at 100 tons in weight. Immediately we wondered aloud what came first: the rock’s original location which invited such an arch to be built or the arch’s design, one the planner knew would be enhanced if that rock were moved right there? Regardless, it was now quite apparent that the rock was an integral part of the arch – and of its experience as well. Truly, no one could pass by without pausing to wonder about its mass. Of course, that day, we soon moved on, continuing our tour into the North Woods. Recently, though I’ve had reason to return to that experience, to see what it may teach me as I process my most recent life decision.

Little did I know what that rock would offer me.

A little more than two and a half years ago, I joined a group with the intention of making a life-long commitment. How eager I was to become a member, to participate in their life-giving activities, to be part of a vibrant community striving so earnestly to transform our world. Through it I hoped to gain both identity and purpose, while contributing mightily to its work. I embraced my new community and role with gratitude and joy. Over time, though, as I entered more deeply into the experience, I needed to move further into its structure, into the back rooms, per se, where the work gets done. Usually when we enter such rooms, as everyone must when s/he joins a new community, we find that although imperfection exists, we can accept the methods, the goals, the culture that drive it. Sometimes, we cannot. Sometimes the deeper we enter into the backrooms, the more and more uncomfortable we become. Sometimes that discomfort reaches the point where we must admit that we just don’t belong. That is what happened to me. I could not remain, and so, I resigned.

In doing so, I am, of course, stuck with the consequences, the primary one being the question: What now?

As I ponder that question, I sort of feel as if I’m standing in the parking lot behind the Lasker complex. To my right is that magnificent arch; to my left is that driveway that can take me to the main road of the park, the road on which service vehicles, cyclists, runners and walkers all traverse. In some ways I feel as if I am being presented with a challenge that lies in scripture:

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Mt. 7:13-14).

Of course, I would never say that those who are traveling the main road through the park are headed to destruction. But, in my own life, I see that, if the drive represents the wide road with the arch being the narrowIMG_1400 gate, in opting for the wide road, I would destroy my own dreams. I must choose the arch. And really, there is some joy in being presented with such a choice. Haven’t we all heard it said that the road less travelled is the better one? Or what about that old cliché in which its promised that God opens a window whenever a door is closed – mixed metaphors aside? And, so I enter the arch, confident that a new path will emerge. But then, inside, awaits that rock – huge, ponderous, not only immoveable but absolutely necessary to the arch’s support. Seeing it again, I realize this:

I am standing under that arch, ready to begin a new journey, only because I could not find my place within that other community.

To be honest, such awareness overwhelms me. I must admit, for months I struggled through a myriad of emotions – confusion, anger, guilt, resentment, grief, frustration. Because I’ve done my best to appear to be a loving and forgiving person through it all, I’ve either hidden or even denied that I was experiencing them. I also wanted to leave the group, acting as if I could easily
walk away, unaffected by all that had occurred. Yes, of course, grief was appropriate to claim. As for all the other emotions, well, as I said, I’m a “loving” person….. But this, too, I must admit: if I don’t claim and work through all those emotions, I run the risk of allowing them to become so entangled that bitterness arises, a bitterness that may have the power to prevent me from taking a single step on my new path. In seeing that rock, however, I see that the entire experience I had with that group, good and bad, is now not only what pushed me out of the community: it is what’s holding up the gateway to the next phase of my life’s journey.

Suddenly, everything changes.

First, humility enters into my heart. What right do I have to be angry at “them” for not fulfilling my hopes and expectations? Of what use would it be to nurse the wounds I felt inflicted upon me? Such self-absorption not only denies what the rock teaches me, it would prevent me from passing through the arch, the narrow way into new life. Gratitude emerges, gratitude for all I experienced, all I learned, and all that brought me to this place. I see that rock, now, as the symbol of all the emotions I have felt during my entire experience, including the earliest ones of joy, abundance and deep admiration. Rather than it becoming the rock which I, consumed by bitterness, would have longed to throw, it has become the foundation upon which I build my future. Peace enters my heart. Not only can I walk away from the experience without bitterness; I can do so knowing and cherishing the vital role it has played in taking me to this new place. And so, in bowing to this rock and that community for all they have offered me, I move on, eager to leave the darkness, eager to step into new life.

Love becomes possible.

Of course, I cannot know what actually lies ahead of me now. But this I do know. The path that runs through the North Woods does lead us by peaceful waters, along which we may pause to rest, before coming to another arch, 20140806_193612Glenspan, and, oh, what a vision it offers!

Yes, hope springs eternal,
All, indeed, shall be well!

And, knowing that everything does belong, I may now offer to all I meet

love untainted by bitterness.
That is my dream.

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God? Who’s that?

20130714_211621It’s about impossible for anyone who has ever read anything I’ve written to not notice how much I reference God. It’s a lot! In fact, it’s actually more difficult for me not to reference God than it is to do so. Why? Well, as much as I’ve tried at times to avoid God throughout my life, God just won’t leave me alone. It seems wherever I go, whatever I do, there’s God. And, I also suspect, that as I acknowledge this continual presence of God, most people just might assume this is how I see God: as a superhuman figure who has such a particular plan for me that s/he will actively intervene so I can fulfill it. After all, what else can one think upon reading the words in one of my recent blogs: “But God wasn’t done with me.” So, let me say this loud and clear:

I do not know “God” as a superhuman figure located somewhere in “heaven”.
Neither do I believe that God seeks to actively direct any of us in one way or another for two reasons:
Not only do we possess free will, God loves us unconditionally.

But yet, my actual language seems to indicate otherwise. Furthermore, I must admit this – there was a time when I actually did believe in that superhuman, muscular old man perpetually watching over us from up above. How could I not have believed as such, given the countless Saturday afternoon visits to the confessional where I was required to give a precise count of how many times I may have hit a younger brother or lied to my mother? And, of course, in reading the parable of the Prodigal Son so many times in CCD classes, how could I not come to experience God as a forgiving father with arms wide open willing to forgive everything I could ever do? Or what about being immersed in Catholic Social Teaching, being told that God expects each and every one of us to work for justice by actively serving the poor and vulnerable in our midst? How could I not feel that if I didn’t do such service that I was personally letting God down? Yes, I will admit, that for much longer than I care to admit, when I thought of God, I reflected upon a rather concrete figure – sometimes male, other times female – but definitely one that, well, took human form. Now, I must also admit that those reflections did provide me not only with the comfort I needed – they also inspired me to grow. But yet, but yet…. no longer do I accept such a specific figure for God. So, what then is God? Who is God to me? And here I must say:

I don’t know!
Oh, I can tell you through images and sensations what I have experienced while bumping into the presence I identify as God, but as to what or who God actually is, I will say it again:
I don’t know.

I have found that just as so many mystics have said, God is utterly beyond comprehension, a truth stated within The Catechism of the Catholic Church when God is described as being, “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable” (42). At the same time, though, quite a few people, myself included, have experienced God’s presence and so, to describe and share that experience with others, we must use words, words that can capture the essence of what we’ve known, but words that are also limited in their ability to say it all. Again, The Catechism: “between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude” (43). As I said, though, there once was a time when, not only didn’t I not quite comprehend the meaning in these words, I actually believed God was the image in my mind. What changed?

Not God…. rather my level of consciousness.

For several decades, psychologists and other researchers have been documenting the progression of growth within the human mind. Most recently, Ken Wilber has published several books on the topic, specifically on human consciousness. In having extensively researched several, maybe even all, of the leading theories, he’s developed his own scheme that documents how each and every person (and human societies as well) move through stages of consciousness as they grow and experience life. He insists that each stage must be experienced (no skipping a grade here), while, at the same time, acknowledging that most people stop somewhere along the way, never attaining the highest levels which he designates as being those of unitive consciousness. He also explains that while at a particular level of consciousness, a person will experience reality (and God) in a particular way, one that is shaped by the values, needs and common desires of that stage. For instance, a person who is at a “tribal” level of consciousness will experience God as a protector so intent upon saving “his” special people, that the deaths of any outsiders may be justified if threats are perceived. In great contrast is the experience of someone at a “global” awareness of God. While identifying with all people at that level, such a person could not imagine God approving the death of anyone, even an enemy, because in that experience of God, God would not make such a distinction.

In having read some of Wilber’s works, I can now more easily accept not only that my experience of God has changed, but also the validity of my earlier imagery. Yes, as a child I did fear that all-powerful God who was capable of seeing everything; yes, as a teen I came to know God as being so forgiving that I could do almost anything I wanted; and yes, my view of God who wanted me to spend as much time as possible working for justice was just as genuine. And now, well, although there is something of a dominant image that lingers – that of a flowing life force calling all in creation forward through evolution – something has changed in me. No longer do I need to insist that this is it! That this particular experience of God is the most correct, the most accurate the most real! Rather, I do suspect, it’s more a reflection of who I am in this moment than of God. And so, I must humbly say when asked as to who or what God actually is, I don’t know.

And yet, I keep bumping into God… and I keep longing to share those experiences with as many people as I can. And so, to offer these moments of grace to all, I will need to use words and images that can convey something of my experience, and in writing about an experience of the past, I need to respect my reality of that time, knowing that even if I, today, might interpret a particular encounter of God a bit differently, back then I could only experience God as I could – and it was that experience that affected me so profoundly, that called me to such growth, that even, at times, cracked open my heart just a little more. And so, I treasure them all – even if I really have to smile at that little girl standing in the confessional line who so earnestly counted up each and every sin she could think of – and even adding a few more just to be sure – to please that old man up in the sky.