Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

Toward Wisdom #2

In Faith, Religion, Wisdom on April 26, 2020 at 11:56 am
Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

Toward Wisdom is a series of thoughts in the age of Covid-19

* * *

I’ve been reading a lot of Merton lately, which is kind of weird frankly. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk (Catholic), a wonderful writer and thinker, a robust contemplative. I say my interest is weird, because there is a lot of talk of God in Merton—talk which used to put be off right out of the box. That aside, the Trappists are known for their vow of silence, their vow of poverty, and deep contemplative lives. These are commitments to a contrarian way of things, a way of things which sometimes reveals doors of insight otherwise difficult to pry open. And right now we are all living a contrarian life, aren’t we? So I guess it’s not all that weird is it?

My great friend Susan, knowing that I’m currently in a Merton phase, recently sent me this Merton quote:

You do not need to know
precisely what is
happening, or exactly
where it is all going. What
you need is to recognize
the possibilities and
challenges offered by the
present moment, and to
embrace them with
courage, faith and hope.

There is much being said here in these few words. There is talk of release (“You do not need to know precisely what is happening…”), talk of being present (”What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment…”), and instruction (“embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”). These are deeply wise words.

I use these daily quotes and passages like a mantra throughout my day. I usually try to boil down the passage’s idea to a few words that I can carry with me throughout the day. For instance, in this case, I simply remember, courage, faith, hope. From there the rest of the idea falls into place. These three words are pretty heady. Courage is an ancient virtue, one of the Stoic’s four cardinal virtues, for example. Faith is a word loaded with religious connotation. That’s fine if that’s the way you lean. But one can also have faith that Spring will come, that there is order to the cosmos, and so on. It is easy to think of hope as something you wish in the future, of desire projected forward. That is one notion of hope, but not a very helpful one. For me, hope is the sense that I can face the unknown, experience the thing out of my control, but will not be mastered by it. It is my sense of comfort with the changing nature of reality, the ability to absorb paradox.

I’m sorry to belabor all this. But I wanted to share how I work with, and find meaning in these phrases and quotes. I talk a lot about a practice. Working in this way with an idea is a fashion of practice. I hope you find it helpful.

Be safe.

Greetings (of the Season)

In Death, Faith, Nature, The infinity of ideas, Wisdom on December 22, 2019 at 9:00 am

Stonehenge, winter solstice

“We must be less than death, to be lessened by it, for nothing is irrevocable but ourselves.” ~ Emily Dickinson, in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson

      * * *

I want to ask you a question and you have to promise that you will not do any mental calculations before answering. Here goes, How many weeks do you think there are in an average lifespan? I recently stumbled across this little fact and was surprised at the answer. Before I tell you, I confess that I grossly over estimated. Here’s something to consider first: The approximate duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia is about 270,000 weeks. And the answer to my question: The modern lifespan average is about four thousand weeks. Four thousand weeks! (I owe these factoids to Oliver Burkeman and his article, Life’s Too Short, in NewPhilosopher magazine, Fall 2019.)

100 years

24,698 days, 100 years.

I recall years ago as a young child looking at a hundred-year calendar contained on just two pages. Each year was represented by a box about three inches square, and within each box was a smaller box for each month, and like nested Russian dolls, within each smaller box, each numbered day. I was probably around ten or eleven years old and looking at those two pages I said out loud, “Somewhere in front of me is the day I will die.”

Death is not something we talk about much. I have my thoughts about it and you have yours. Regardless of our notions on the matter it is coming for us. Thinking about it, philosophizing about it, building temples and formulating doctrines around it makes no difference. It cannot be avoided.

This is the holiday season and you may think me growing dark with talk of death. The season, no matter what you make of it, is supposed to be about birth and new beginnings. Consider the ancient Roman festival in honor of the god Saturn, Saturnalia. This holiday spanned December 17 through the 23rd and was associated with the “freeing of souls into immortality.” Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday which falls this time of year, is about celebrating liberation and finding light in the darkest of times. solsticeI read recently of a new archeological discovery in Great Britain. It was a neolithic structure with but just one window. This single window, strategically placed, afforded light to the room only one day a year, the winter solstice. (As you may know, yesterday was the winter solstice.) Regardless of the event, be it a Walmart blow-out Christmas sale, or a Druid celebration of the coming of the light, this is a time of year that has for as long as we know, afforded humankind an opportunity for reflection—and if you’re inclined, worship.

So reflect on the weeks of your life and how you’ve been chipping away at the average. How many of the four thousand do you think you may have left? How do you think you ought to experience them? The same as all the others? Or do you wish to change it up?

I am moved to these reflections by something I read recently in the book Figuring by the indomitable Maria Popova. “Questions of meaning are a function of human life,” she writes,

“…but they are not native to the universe itself—meaning is not what we find, but what we create with the lives we live and the seeds we plant and the organizing principles according to which we sculpt our personhood.”

The ancients built meaning and ritual into the universal occurrences of nature. Sadly, we have moved away from nature, think ourselves removed from and something other than born of nature. In the gap we’ve created, the ancient rituals have become rote and corrupted by commerce, politics, and indifference. I obviously don’t know how many of my hoped for 4000 weeks remain to me, but I take seriously my responsibility to use them wisely. I take seriously my responsibility to make something meaningful of them.

The laws of nature, including death, cannot be avoided, despite our inclinations to ignore and dismiss them. We are subject to the same laws as that which prompts the trees to shed the leaves, the river to freeze, the beloved to die—and still the sun will rise. As I said previously, I’m not someone who traditionally has practiced ritual or acknowledged the import of spirituality, however that may be defined. Frankly, I am comfortable leaving all that aside. Instead, I wish to focus on what is in front of me, life. I wish to focus on infusing what remains to me with meaning and meaningfulness. That is, perhaps, the nature of my faith, my ritual, my spiritual practice. I wish to turn my thought from death to this moment while I am still breathing. The light is coming, the room will be illuminated as the blue planet turns in compliance to the laws of nature. I am no different, subject as I am to that from which I was born. I must obey…

I hope you have a meaningful holiday season.

Sunday Repost: Woof, Woof. Bark.

In Death, Dogs, Faith, Philosophy, Writing on February 3, 2013 at 6:00 am

I was at a book reading a few evenings ago. Two rows in front of me sat a woman and next to her, on its own seat, perched an ivory-colored terrier. The dog was well-behaved and I was enjoying her (his?) presence when it turned and looked at me through the slats of the ladder-back chair. Her eyes were like brilliant black marbles tucked in a fluff of silk. I stared into them, lost, and was suddenly and unexpectedlly overwhelmed with the thought of those eyes locked on her master, then closing forever on the stainless steel veterinarian’s table. I chased the thought away it was so immediately and consumingly dark and troubling. Why such a thought would occur to me is a mystery. I’m not dark that way; but animals have always held an incomprehensible sway over me.

It is possibly apocryphal but reported that upon finding a horse being abused on the streets of Turin, Nietzsche threw himself,

Nietzsche, Turin, & the horse.

Nietzsche, Turin, & the horse.

sobbing, around the neck of the beast. The event so overwhelmed the fragile philosopher that he never recovered, never spoke another word, and plummeted into a psychosis from which he did not recover. One can profess a will to power but protecting an animal might be the greatest philosophy.

I’ve had dogs all my life. One dog lost to illness years ago prompted a friend’s comment, “That must be like losing a family member.” No, it was not like losing, it was losing a family member. The most violent mourning I’ve ever experienced was at the loss of my Maggie a year and a half ago. As I write this my little Lucy, a terrier mix, is asleep at the office door, putting

Lucy: ragamuffin.

Lucy: ragamuffin.

herself between me and any intruder who might make the mistake of crossing her without my permission.

Any philosophy I might have must include the beasts.

Hubristic medieval philosophers held that animals had no soul because they had no self-consciousness. Perhaps in that fact alone we hold the  evidence of a superior soul-filled being. This seems provable in that animals will not burn witches at the stake nor slaughter whales.

It is maybe that I want to be more like a dog and less like a human being. I find in them evidence of how to live in a moment so completely as to exist in full vibrancy. Too, I recognize love in a dog more readily and without apprehension than I do in people. Surely, that is a teaching. A dog does not make professions of faith, does not pray, does not sin nor seek redemption. Those are human designs extraneous to an animal intent on spirited life. There is joy at a dog park that is not found in a church. That is where I go to pray.

Does it kill cats?

In Curiosity, Faith, Family, Memoir, Religion, The infinity of ideas on June 26, 2009 at 5:52 pm

I abandoned my family religion while in college. I did so–abandon my religion–and informed my family, my father and my mother, with a letter filled with pretension and big words. I said recently that I had a youthful tendency to haughtiness and this is but one example. I am not sure how my parents, my mother, in particular, took the letter. I was in college and they had never been. I am sure I talked down to them. I probably hurt them and I am sorry now that I handled it the way I did, aware as I was how important our religion, Christian Science, was to my mother.

I don’t recall ever discussing the letter. Later, I was too ashamed and embarrassed by it, and my mother likely found it too painful to talk about. Her religion was everything. Perhaps my letter will turn up some day, though I think not. I think it was a burden and probably destroyed. Religion was the strongest family link I experienced and in leaving it, all the orderliness amongst the small family of mother, father, and child grew tenuous and subject to strain. Beyond the inevitable drifting of child and parents, my apostasy ushered in a lasting atmosphere of common politeness. The patina of religion, the hue of our family life, had been wiped clear and only an unadorned opaqueness remained.

I left Christian Science for a number of reasons. Chief among them, and most importantly, was the need to remove the strictures necessary to be a good Christian Scientist. That is, I wished to experience life in a broader way. The thing most everyone knows about Christian Science is that the Christian Scientist “does not go to doctors.” And this is true. It is accepted wisdom that Christian Scientists are faith healers and that they don’t go to doctors because they have faith that God will heal them. This is not accurate. In many people’s minds they are akin to snake handlers and child abusers. That was not my experience.

In simplest terms, the Christian Scientist believes that his or her experience is a manifestation of his or her thinking. The

Mary Baker Eddy

Mary Baker Eddy

founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote, “Stand porter at the door of thought.” That is good advice, I think. It is not a bad idea to be aware of what’s going on between your ears. Indeed, if more of us did the world would likely be a better place. But Christian Science takes this admonition uncomfortably into the realm of the biological. The sick Christian Scientist, simply put, must apprehend what is wrong in her thinking, fix that, and she won’t be sick any more. There is faith, in Christian Science, that this can be figured out. But it is not faith that actually fixes things, which is a fine distinction. It is like math. One can have faith that the answer to the equation can be arrived at, but faith does not deliver it.

I am not here to discuss the merits of this idea. I grew up with it. Yes, I did not go to doctors. My parents did not go to doctors, nor did anyone in the extended family. They all were Christian Scientists. No one died of lingering illness. We were lucky, I guess. Why do I share all this? Is there a reason for telling these things, this aimless self-revelation? Only this: I want you to know who I am as you read me. The irony of any of this is my desire for privacy in the face of such transparency. Regardless, for whatever reason, it is important that you know what is on my mind and who I am. I live in a crazy world where self realization is an optional achievement.

Is curiosity dangerous? Does it kill cats?

Leaving the religion was necessary. The terminally curious will be subject to all manor of challenge. Fear that one’s thinking can turn on one, regardless of the physiological merits of the notion, can be debilitating and if not debilitating, exhausting. To this day, forty years later, I struggle: with my mind; with my thinking; what comes in; what goes on; what comes out–as is evidenced here, with this very self-referential project. Naturally, a thinking person is going to occasionally wrestle with the packets of information speeding along the neural pathways of the brain. But I was trained to examine, challenge and reject any manor of thought which might prove contrary to spiritual well being. I have toll booths build along those pathways. “One dollar please.”

What does my thinking bring to experience, if anything? Or, said another way, what does my experience reflect of my thought? The Christian Scientist holds that some thoughts are lethal and will struggle to replace them. Like all religions there is a path, a manner of being, to which one should adhere. Is that not the responsibility of religion, to point a way? Some people take direction better than others.

Regardless, like hunger, it was good discipline.

 Again, we realize a calm in the turbulent sea of the unsettled.