Monday, December 21, 2009


Cairn Holy, Scotland

Dear xxx,

In each sentence of your latest letter I hear the interference of attachment. You write of your desire to enter into the heart of a great unity with the divine, but I hear anxiety over money and a desire to 'matter' to a world that will soon forget you. These are distractions that test the authenticity of your desire to enter into that unity.

Most disturbing is the obsession with freeing yourself of all sin. The desire to possess a life free of sin (in your letter you complain of sloth as you waste time watching television) is in itself a kind of attachment. You focus on making that happen through discipline, rather than through non-attachment. The effort to detach is not the same as the surrender to non-attachment. Just ask yourself, next time you are watching television and feeling sinful for wasting time, what is it that I am avoiding? What fear must I let go of in order to relax into that which I know is pulling me toward the divine?

There it is. That offer which God lays in front of us then turns away so as not to cause us embarrassment when we refuse to pick it up. No wonder when we choose our attachments we feel at once the freedom of self-fulfillment and the sting of disappointment.

Ask God to stay, not to look away, so that you may choose the path God has laid out and see.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Sleeping Man

Dear xxx,

You ask me for assistance in guiding you to some 'practices' that might be helpful to you in your desire for a more complete spiritual life. It is always difficult to answer such a request at the beginning of spiritual companioning.

Wisdom men and women who are wiser than me in this area suggest that the first place to begin is to 'wake up'. Not from that rest which we all need; we all need a good nap now and then. But to wake up to what is happening around you in the splendor of the present moment.

As you walk down this busy street of your life, what do you notice out of all that is presented to you from your senses before your analytic mind comments on it? What is actually happening in this moment that is beyond the reach of your senses? Are you aware that that tree has struggled to live outside of the field? That the wood in that fence was sacrificed from a living entity in some faraway wood? That the passerby has a story to tell about how they feel right now in this moment?

So the first step, beyond the desire itself to enter into a new consciousness, is to notice what is occurring all around you right now. Allow yourself to sense the world around you from perspectives other than your own, to allow for other possibilities and other frames of reference. Mine the richness of that moment.

Start there, in the moments of everyday existence, and awaken to what is happening. Then as you reflect on your day (an important part of the practice), recollect those experiences, and notice, if you can, what seemed unusual to you. This takes practice, but is an essential first step towards moving into a deeper spiritual life.

I look forward to your next letter.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Freedom from the False Self

Dear Xnnnnnn,

I totally understand your admiration of Merton. He seems to speak to us as pilgrims along the way, sometimes as if he is a companion at our side, and other times as the leader showing us the way.

Merton often tells us that we are not spiritually free unless we are free from depending on external conditions, or others, for our responses to reality. So I am not surprised that his statement in one of his letters that "All that stuff which comprises our 'false self', what I like or dislike, is not important" caught your attention in prayer. The contemplative recognizes this desire in themselves to cast off the false self, IF ONLY HE or SHE KNEW HOW!

We know that this desire, and the spirit to pursue it, comes from God. Those who glimpse moments of losing the false self do so in tandem with Grace. Still, the contemplative believes in turning intentionally toward God.

There are many ways to begin, the masters of our faith tradition tell us. You ask me in your letter about this. How can you begin to recognize the false self? How can you get in touch with your true self?
Begin with practice. As your director I can suggest that you begin to name your dislikes and likes. So every day, as part of your prayer practice, write down, or say aloud, or converse with a friend, a list of what is important to you that day, and what is not important that day. The task right now is not to judge what comes up. The task is simply to name. Intentionally.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Distinguishing the False Self

"When everything is taken away, you can still be free and that is true freedom, and this is why we are here, to find this out." - Thomas Merton

Dear Xxxxxx,

Thank you for your letter. I value deeply the level of sharing in it.

Your description of the 'separation' experience when you were 13 is of such a personal nature that it is humbling to be asked to comment on it. However this was a moment when you were shown the 'otherness' of the false self, the self that your two friends conspired against, probably an innocent example of adolescent positioning for popularity.
In the moment that you described as one of profound aloneness, in which you observed your false self as a rejected friend, that observer, while sensing the hurt, also had the qualities of the freedom and eternal life that characterize the true self. God stood with you as you felt this sense of confidence in the inner self. It is not uncommon for adolescents to experience this, but to KNOW that you experienced it is grace. It should not surprise you that you didn't recall this experience until years later. It should also not surprise you that when you did recollect, the memory was as vivid and colorful as if it happened yesterday.
You can now see, through the same lenses, that the observer in that experience is the same as the observer who is now reading and reflecting on this letter. The false self has also evolved in the time since, in wisdom, in age, in joy and woundedness, but that true self, you will probably understand, has not changed one bit.

The freedom that comes from such an experience and the recollection of it, and the grace that shows it to be an anchor to the true self, has now given you a compass with which to find that same self in each experience, not only in reflection. May it now help you to be open to all that has never happened before.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

On Angels

On grace, recollection, and prayers for absent angels.

Dear Xxxxxx,

The encounter that you described in your letter has all of the characteristics of grace. That you didn't at the time associate the experience with God's presence is often a sign of the silent movement of the spirit. And the appearance of an angel such as the government office manager in such a desperate time, given that he did not know you, but seemed to be fully present in listening to you (and your description of the office as empty of others) gives full credence to my certainty.

The fact that you have, after all these years, recalled with clarity this experience, and you have assigned such importance to it as to bring it to direction, is also a clear indication of the holiness and grace of this experience. God arrived just in time, with just the right compass for your path.

Take the time to pray for your angel, for those that were absent while your angel focused God's light on you, for the inner strength that led you, on that day, to seek and trust. You were in a state of abandonment, and grace broke through the cloud of fearful uncertainty. There was no 'deserving' required of you. God sought to prime the pump of your soul on that day.

Finally, open yourself to those that will walk into your presence with an unprimed pump. They will be transformed by grace if you are abandoned in your own self-interest. God seems to rejoice in those momentary openings that we accept from God, as if to say 'There...There it is! Grab it!'.