Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Spiritual Practices for the Dark Night -- Giving Thanks



I don't believe in New Year's resolutions.  They tend to be such cliches.  Quit smoking.  Exercise.  Lose weight.  Well, if you are serious about losing weight, you gather information, you set goals, you plot a course, you prepare your house, you find a buddy (just like in AA), you plan each day, you think a lot and you practice.  It's worth doing, and I did.  The point of all of the above is to change the way you eat.  Permanently.  So I did all of the above and I feel great (at least about the way I eat).  I wish you all the success in the world.

Christians get a second shot at the diet thing in Lent, which begins sometime in the middle of February.  It doesn't fare any better than New Year's diets, because so few people want to change their life.  They want a quick fix for that swimming suit or class reunion.  That's why Lent.  It's time limited, forty days, with Sundays not counting.  Sundays are free days, for all the bad habits you resume once Lent is over.

Me, I am interested in changing my life.  You may be, too, if you too have peered into the dark abyss and something still holds you back from the edge.  We are tired of living on that edge.  It's just too scary.  It wears us out.

So I take advantage of whatever reflecting you might be doing on your life this time of year to introduce some spiritual practices that could change it.

Now don't get twitchy because I use the word "spiritual."  Yes, I am a priest; and yes, I have a charge on my life; and yes, I do my best to follow Jesus.  It causes me pain that many of you do not have access to that most powerful juju, because of how badly Jesus is represented by some people who have such strange ideas about how to follow him.  And I ask him and you also to forgive me for how little I ever do about that.

But give me a hearing.  I even changed the title for you.  I could have called it "spiritual disciplines," which is how I think of them, and which connects these practices to their deep roots in my own and other religious traditions that have been around a lot longer than you or I, so that you might give them a chance to find out why they have stuck around so long.

Anyway, "practices" gives the sense that if you mess up one day, well, that's what people who are practicing do.  Then they practice some more.

Having spent so much space on the title, I can't get to all three practices today.  For which I am glad, because I do better when I don't have to figure out what I will write about, and now I know for three weeks, because I have just created another series.  I hope I will remember the second practice, which I don't right this minute.

I try, I don't always succeed, but I try to start each day with three things for which I am thankful.  I an not particularly profound, nor even moved.  I just notice three things.  Today I am thankful that the sun came up.  It didn't come out, but I can cut it slack some mornings.  I haven't been out yet either.  But it came up.  That's a start, for which I am thankful.

I am thankful that I have a psychiatrist who listens to me.  Let's not spend any time on the one who didn't.  Let's focus on the present, for which I am thankful, because she listens to me.

I am thankful that my sweet Mazie is still alive.  She has renal failure, and every day we notice more signs.  It began with weight loss, then bad breath.  Now she needs to go out several times a day, instead of three.  I am the one who takes her for two long walks, and that gets me out, as well as up, whether the sun is joining us or not.  Which is good for my mental health and for my heart, and so I am thankful.

Three things for which to give thanks makes me mindful, makes me pay attention to the present, which is a gift, which is why it is called the "present."  For those of us who have peeered into the dark abyss, the present is indeed a gift.  Because we can imagine not receiving it.

Sometimes I forget to practice this practice.  But I almost always give thanks at mealtime.  That covers me three times a day.  I give thanks for the food, for the hands that prepared it, and sometimes for those who grew it and picked it, and those who packed and delivered it.  When appropriate to the menu, I might thank the chicken or the pig, and while I am at it, I apologize to them that I am not yet a vegetarian.

When I am in Central America, I hear my friends giving their thanks in quiet and rapid Spanish, so rapid that I can barely pick out a few words.  But I hear them pray for those who do not have food, and for a world in which everyone will have food every day, like we pray in the Lord's Prayer: Thy will be done.  Another word for this kind of prayer is mindfulness.

I was at a restaurant once on "A Day Without Mexicans," when lots of people from Central America stayed home from work to demonstrate how much the rest of us depend on them.  I overheard a woman ranting at this demonstration, and how "they should go back to where they came from."  All the while, she was eating a big beautiful salad.

Since that day, sometimes I pray, "Bless this food and the hands that prepared it.  May it bless us or curse us, according to how we treat those who brought it to us."  That is mindfulness, too.

I treat this practice gently.  Once in a while I wonder who I am thanking, and that reminds me how mad I still am at God about this disease.  I don't know how to give thanks for that yet.  Part of my dark night is this alienation from God.  Even alienation is a relationship.  But it's not one I want to press too hard.

Don't press it too hard.  Thankfulness will do its work over time.  Treat it as an experiment, to find out what it will work in you.

Happy New Year.

thank you to Stefan Mayrhofer who took this photo and placed it in the public domain

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