There was one particular monk who caught this man's attention and he found himself very curious about this particular monk and his behaviors. He noticed that no matter what the monk was doing he had a small smile on his face and he was always singing. It didn't matter if he was working in the grapevines, sweeping floors, washing dishes, reading a book, and magically even if he was in some sort of conflict with one of his brothers.
Astonished by this monk’s constant way of being in the world he began to unconsciously follow the monk and pay close attention to his every move. One morning around 4AM the man was caught staring at the monk in the kitchen making bread, smiling and singing when the monk looked up and said “I've noticed that you are watching me all the time.” The man of course was embarrassed but he said "Oh yes I am - I'm sorry I will leave you alone." The monk replied to him “No you do not need to leave can I help you with something?"
The man responded in a somewhat angry tone saying "Well it just seems to me that no matter what you are doing and no matter the circumstances whether good or bad you always seem so content and at peace and well, happy.”
The monk replied to him "Yes I suppose that is true."
"How do you do that?" said the man.
And the monk answered him saying, "Because in the presence of God everything belongs whether it's work or play or sadness or anger or joy. I receive all things as gifts from God and opportunities to learn and so there is no other way to behave in the midst of all things but to receive them with joy."
It seems that is probably what the man went looking for on his spiritual retreat to the monastery. I imagine he went home shortly after quite satisfied. Perhaps this Lenten journey could be one of learning to receive all things. When we fail to receive all things we are sometimes consciously but usually unconsciously instead comparing and thus suffering all things. In other words we are always wishing we were someplace else, or we are always desiring a certain thing to be in its former way rather than its current way. Donald Trump’s campaign slogan "Make America Great Again" was successful not because America was actually greater than it is today. We have never had a squeaky clean history with full equity for all people. But if the psyche is constantly repeating the refrain “Make America Great Again” whether it was ever great or not one begins to compare their current not-so-good-situation to a former dream reality wishing they were in the former place whether it ever existed or not. When we receive all things as a gift from God we do not suffer the consequences of comparing the current to the former or the hoped for future; we simply receive what is now.
This week my wife has been away on a much-deserved Sabbath retreat with some friends from seminary out in New Mexico. (On a side note I have determined two things during her retreat. 1. Current pop radio is a waste of radio waves. I have been listening to current pop radio every day driving the kids to school between the hours of 7:30 and 9:00 and have drawn this conclusion decisively but there I suppose I go comparing and hence suffering. But that is neither here nor there. 2. Single parents are the strongest most enduring and persistent people in the world) .My greater point in telling that my wife is away on retreat is that I have had the opportunity this week to practice precisely the thing I am talking about. I have noticed about myself this week that when I allow myself to begin wishing her vacation away and thinking how much easier morning routines would be with my partner here and how much less exhausting the evenings would be with my partner here I begin to grow bitter and angry. When I take a deep breath and thank God for the opportunity to spend extra time with my children one on one even though the morning routine is still difficult and the evenings are still exhausting I am somehow at a much great peace. I am not comparing and therefore I am not suffering the consequences of comparing. I am much less likely to loose my temper, or make snap judgments, and am far more patient. I will even say that we have enjoyed one another and delighted in one another.
To take this out of the personal realm, we see this unfold in community, especially in the church. The church around the world is lamenting a day when individuals and families came to church out of a sense of civic responsibility. Churches did not need to practice evangelism and the preacher didn't even have to preach a good sermon – folks just showed up because it was their responsibility to do so. Now the church is lamenting this former time and I cannot tell you how many books, blogs, Facebook posts, and tweets I have read over the years that have lamented this only with different language saying things like “Young people just don't believe in Jesus” “Young people today just don't think they need the church” “People are too busy with all of their other activities.” What is really going on with these laments is a grieving for the loss of what actually used to be which is not the fault of these "young people" and really it is no one's “fault.” Why do we always have to blame? It is what it is and we can receive this present moment and be open to how God might call us to respond or we can compare and suffer.
On a much more individualistic note Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest tells the story of a mentor and fellow priest who was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer and died very quickly. He was a joyful man and James Martin expressed that this man remained joyful even in his greatest moments of suffering. When he asked him how he could stay joyful in those moments the man told him that it was because he received all things as they were and he would only suffer if he were constantly comparing his present pain to a former painless place that he wished he could be. It is not as simple as this priest makes it sound but truth is not always simple.
Finally I think about Jesus on the cross; that moment that we will acknowledge in just a few short weeks from now on Good Friday. In his moment of horrifying pain Jesus was able to ask forgiveness for his accusers. He found the grace speak to his disciples and to his mother forming a new union. Christ was able to receive all the things he was experiencing and still be present to that which was around him. How can this be?
I began this Lenton blog series by adamantly saying I would not prescribe any spiritual disciplines. I'm sticking to that and yet suggesting subtly that we could all perhaps pay attention to those moments when we are tempted to compare and suffer rather than receive and give thanks. And I just wonder what we might notice about ourselves, our God, our community, and our world when we can receive all things.
"Then sings my soul my savior God to the how great thou Art, how great thou Art."