Conduct and observance

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Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Big View

This morning in church there was a black woman and her two children sitting right behind us in the pews.

I know it's the fashion today to speak of them as African-Americans, but I used the term black with the deepest respect. Black is a good thing. Let me explain this.

I took in this impression of the woman and her very beautiful son and daughter as human beings with black skin. They are different than me, and they seemed to have an essential beauty that was greater than anything I could understand. It struck me all at once how incredible these people are, how they exude a vitality and spirituality with a purity and an honesty that I don't seem to be able to achieve as a white person. The black races have been blessed in an excess measure with a heartfelt understanding of God that they bring to the rest of us as a gift. They have a spiritual genius that leaves me in awe.

They bring far more than this gift to us; they make us what we are. What is jazz, that most American of all musical forms, but a black invention? Where would baseball be without the great black players? What would America have been without the Civil War, the crucible that formed what we are today? In every instance, it is the blacks that have been at the center of the questions of our culture. They have brought us the questions, they have lived the questions: they have confronted all of us with who we are, what we want, and where we are going.

Along the way, they have paid a terrible price in blood. Great sacrifices like this always produce the great moments in cultures, and in this case it is no exception. These people, who were torn from the heart of their continent and brought here against their will, have informed us with their art, with their understanding of God, with their willingness to struggle in the face of adversity and stand up proudly to declare that they, too, have meaning, despite the fact that they do not look like we do. Their continued dignity in the face of inhuman abuse stands as a lesson in how to be for all of us.

And when I see them at worship- as I did this morning- I think that perhaps, in the end, for all our pompous bluster, our guns, our germs, our steel, like Gunga Din, they are made of a better stuff than we are.

Every minority informs the white Europeans in this way. As we encounter those who look different than us, we discover rich new ways of understanding ourselves as well as those around us. The blending of cultures, the exchange of different values in different peoples, brings us all to the ground floor of our humanity, where we have to confront our mortality and value each other.

White people practically invented the idea of seeing themselves as the center of the universe. We are stupid that way. Repeatedly, as the white man "settled" (destroyed) other societies, he bewildered the people he encountered with his arrogant ideas of entitlement and superiority.

Not only did he bewilder them; if they resisted, he killed them.

The problem echoes all the way down to modern times, when other equally misguided peoples become so desperate that they feel like they have to ram airliners into office buildings to make the point.

I think we can all agree there has to be a better way. But let us ask the question: how many airliners do we ram into ourselves?

The outward metaphor of accepting the other, finding a way to understand their humanity with a real and heartfelt compassion, has a parallel in our inner work. Those parts of us that seem to be most different than what we think we are may be the pivot around which our work turns. There are so many ways of working on this idea that I cannot even begin to speak of them here in the blog. It is simply something, like a sweet bonbon, that needs to be rolled around in the mouth and tasted for a while to appreciate its savor.

Every once in a while, in rare moments during a lifetime, we see a tiny glimpse of the truth, as I did this morning when I saw this woman and her children. We see that the other is our self, that we are all here together as one, and that only compassion and love can serve in the exchange between us.

As Christ taught us, we are all fallen beings who have forgotten this lesson. In his own day, he stretched himself out on a cross and died in the hopes that his sacrifice could serve as a reminder.

I can only hope that my compassion, my capacity for what Gurdjieff used to call outer considering, deepens. Instead of living through the mind, I hope that I will remember to live through the heart. Chinese Zen master Ta Hui said over and over again that what is sought cannot be grasped with the mind.

But if it comes to the heart, then we at least have a ghost of a chance.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water. And today, may the power of the Holy Spirit fill us all with the hope of a new life, a new compassion, a new understanding.

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