Contemplation and human rights?

We have a wonderful new museum in Canada – The Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It is remarkable in content and resources, but also remarkable in architecture. I had the opportunity of learning more about this museum today and was struck by the intentionality of the created space in particular. Every single aspect of the building, along with every single display, artifact and interactive media center, carries layers of meaning and shapes the experience, and therefore the learning, of each person entering. The design illustrates so profoundly the interaction between learning and space or form and inspired all of us present with regard to considering how stronger elements of design could be present in our teacher education programs and our learning spaces.

There was one aspect of the architecture that particularly intrigued me. At the heart of the museum you will find a Garden of Contemplation, a beautiful and peaceful and seemingly empty space. What intrigued me was that all of the other images of spaces in the museum were filled with people busy doing and interacting. In fact the museum is highly interactive, incorporating innovative and cutting edge technology. Our presenter spoke at length about how the museum visitors are encouraged to personally engage, explore, discover, transform and then respond with action and commitment. But the contemplative space was empty and only briefly mentioned.

This emptiness didn’t surprise me – I wouldn’t naturally put together contemplative practices with human rights activism. I think that I would also be more drawn to the stories and images and interactive opportunities in the rest of the museum. But as I pondered this emptiness, I began to think about how it was representative of our lives beyond this museum and human rights. We all seem to know that contemplative space, either physical places or internal practices, is necessary, and many of us even long for it. However, when given the option to interact, to do, to be active, or to make what looks like a heroic difference, that space is so often left empty. We are not quite sure why it is even necessary – it seems somewhat wasteful and useless. This uselessness was further illustrated in our conversations around some of the difficult stories told in a museum for human rights and their impact on visiting children and adults. The response to the possible trauma and despair was ensuring they could respond with concrete action. No one suggested a visit to the contemplative garden…

St. Isaac the Syrian seemed to know about this human tendency when he said that we should ‘love stillness more than feeding the hungry and giving alms to the poor’, therefore more than activism for any kind of human right, more than changing the world for what we think might be better even though we never really know and are often wrong. He didn’t say not to love these things – we should love to offer ourselves in life-giving ways to others in whatever places of offering we find ourselves. We should just love stillness more.

I am a stillness beginner, but I am starting to understand why it is so important and to value it in my life. I have found that stillness leads us on a different journey, a slower and more patient journey. Stillness orients us to our absolute contingency and corrects our ego’s self-serving and self-protective tendencies. Stillness reminds us we are not God and helps us come to know God and all that is Other than us. Stillness can even convict us that we are complicit in the situation requiring change leading us to a more compassionate rather than judging regard for a situation. Stillness helps us attend/pay attention to reality and others in a way that precludes the possibility of entering into action that is inherently violent in its imposition and carelessness. So often our helping hurts. Stillness brings us quite easily into a place of gratitude and awareness of greater goodness, truth and beauty. Stillness moves us into creative and meaningful responses that are often far more democratic, helpful, meaningful and lasting than the responses that emerge from living our lives as if we are ‘thrown stones’ frantic to rearrange the world. (Lees, 2012)

I am grateful our human rights museum has this place of contemplation and that it is found in the center or heart of the space. May this visible, beautiful and invitational space grow in its presence and impact. I believe it can because I know that stillness creates more longing for stillness. May this contemplative space also grow in the lives of all of us who care about human rights and want to teach others to care.

Lees, H. E. (2012). Silence in schools. London, UK: Institute of Education Press.

http://www.humanrights.ca Canadian Museum for Human Rights Website

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Turning the page

Recently, a reader asked me to post on something we had talked about – that, as teachers, we have to get really good at ‘turning the page’. The reader was hoping the post would coincide with the beginning of the new semester, recognizing this as a time when we do get that chance to ‘turn the page’. In fact, in the cyclical pattern of education, we get that chance, again and again – each year, each semester, each new curriculum focus, each Monday, each day, a new page to write on. This is a great mercy because we all know how infrequently we live up to our ideals as teachers, how most of the time our vocation is so much bigger than our abilities, how often we wish for a redo. So God gives us new beginnings, ones mainly beyond our control, so that we have to turn that page. These new beginnings teach us to remember that time is not ours, that it is always a gift to be received with gratitude and humility. They also teach us to have compassion on our students, who also need fresh beginnings and the willingness of teachers to refuse to categorize them and, therefore, give up on them. Instead, they need teachers who invite their students into a new day, a new beginning, forgetting what is past and pressing on to what lies ahead. We are all beloved children of God. He doesn’t give up on us, He just keeps calling us forward in our purpose to become more like Him. We don’t yet know who any of us will become. 1 John 3:2

So this is my posting for that reader and for all high school teachers beginning their second semester. It is one day late. But I am ‘turning the page’ on that lateness, admitting my weakness, yet still offering, with hope, the words that re-member me, bring life to me.  As usual they are not my words, but words that are a pattern of truth from those much further along the path than me.

We must learn to live each day, each hour, yes, each minute as a new beginning, as a unique opportunity to make everything new. Imagine that we could live each moment as a moment pregnant with new life. Imagine that we could live each day as a day full of promises. Imagine that we could walk through the new year always listening to a voice saying to us: “I have a gift for you and can’t wait for you to see it!” Imagine. Is it possible that our imagination can lead us to the truth of our lives? Yes, it can! The problem is that we allow our past, which becomes longer and longer each year, to say to us: “You know it all: you have seen it all, be realistic; the future will be just another repeat of the past. Try to survive it as best you can.” There are many cunning foxes jumping on our shoulders and whispering in our ears the great lie: “there is nothing new under the sun…don’t let yourself be fooled…”

So what are we to do? First, we must send the foxes back to where they belong: in their foxholes. And then we must open our minds and our hearts to the voice that resounds through the valleys and hills of our life saying: “Let me show you where I live among my people. My name is ‘God-with-you’. I will wipe away all the tears from your eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness. The world of the past is gone.” We must choose to listen to that voice, and every choice will open us a little more to discover the new life hidden in the moment, waiting eagerly to be born. (Nouwen, 1999, p. 84)

God bless your new beginnings and send the cunning foxes away, and may His spirit be upon you, revealing the new life in each moment.

Nouwen, H.J.M. (1999) in Greer, W.G. (ed.) (2014) The only necessary thing: Living a prayerful life. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

What to do in a fiery furnace

Fiery furnaces seem to abound in education – those circumstances beyond our control, places we get thrown into whether we like it or not, either perceived or real threats we experience if we aren’t in agreement with the current thinking, system or action. And then, just when one fiery furnace is cooled, another seems to take its place – out of the fiery furnace of job action, into the fiery furnace of 30 children with so many needs, curriculum that demands coverage and measurement, and so many dysfunctional relationships. Most intense of all is the fiery furnace beyond our circumstances, the furnace of our inner burning thoughts and ego that are best at leading us where we don’t really want to go – down paths of anger, frustration with ourselves and others, doubt, impatience, righteous indignation, self-satisfying demands, ingratitude… We are always being coerced into worshiping some kind of false idol and those who coerce seem all-powerful. We are taunted by the words of Nebuchadnezzar, “Then what God is there who will deliver you from my hands?” And all seems fearful and hopeless.

What to do?

The three young men say there is no need to answer for there is a God in the heavens, whom they serve and He is able to save them. They don’t take things into their own hands, they don’t even tell God what to do. Their silence speaks volumes.

The three young men treasure their faith, putting their hearts into nothing except God, walking in his commandments, seeking His face continuously, turning towards Him and away from the things that are lifeless. Their faith is precious, practiced, transformative; and, therefore, a source of strength in weakness. They are steadfast.

The three young men pray with their eyes open, solving their riddle (in the midst of the flame) with psalmody, ‘singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.’ (Ps. 49)

The three young men overcome all temptation to resentment with gratitude and worship. Their hymn in the midst of the furnace is remarkable, exhorting every created thing in heaven and on earth to bless the Lord, to see all things and all circumstances as communion with God.

The three young men are the blessed meek, handing over their bodies to be burned. They are like innocent Susanna who said it was better to fall into the hands of evil ones than to sin against God, but who still looked to the heavens because her ‘heart trusted in the Lord’.

And then…the three young men are not destroyed! They find life, they inherit the earth. A theophany occurs! God incarnate is with them! The Angel of the Lord makes the furnace “as though a dew-laden breeze were blowing through it.” And then others see that the Angel of the Lord is walking with them and realize that no other God can save in this way – sharing His abundant life in the midst of a fiery furnace, participating in their suffering and transforming it, removing even the smell of the fire on their clothes and replacing it with the fragrance of God.

When we wonder what to do in the midst of a fiery furnace, may we be like the three young men. May we see God walking with us and saving us the way no other God can – sharing His life of peace and righteousness in the midst of all of our fiery furnaces. And then…may others experience the healing presence and fragrance of God through us.

Time, not our time

It is August 18. The summer is drawing to a close and, for those of us who are educators, September is dawning as a time of new beginnings, new mercies, new possibilities, new realities. It is also a time of renewed rhythms, rhythms of time put on hold during the summer, rhythms that can sometimes seem restrictive or less ours than the rhythms of summer. But as T.S. Elliott so famously wrote, no time is our time.

We like to think that time is ours, that we have some control over time. We are addicted to our planners and calendars. As educators, we feel most peaceful when our dayplans are organized and we have a clear vision for what is going to happen when. Even in summer, a less restrictive season of time, we often plan each moment of the day just as intensely as if we were working in a factory with a clock to punch and a quota of fun to fill. We so easily forget what the Psalmist is constantly reminding us, “Yours (the Lord’s) is the day, yours also the night.” We forget what our experience teaches us — that we have no control over the rising or setting of the sun, the number of our days, the plans we pursue that easily go awry in the time we are given. We ignore the rhythms always present, the rhythms of each day and each season, of everything under heaven. We refuse to listen to these rhythms we know nothing about anymore. We start to take time into our own hands and find ourselves living unnatural and unbalanced lives. We don’t see that our hyper-ordered days are actually disordered and hellish.

Time is a gift, every moment. It is not ours to use, but ours to enliven. Thomas Merton said, “Many lights are burning that ought to be put out. Kindle no new fires. Live in the warmth of the sun.”

I am learning to be thankful for time – for its coming and going, for the joy of the morning and the grief of the evening. I love the brightness of the dawn, the heat of noonday and the beauty of each sunset. When I open my hands and let go of the delusion that I control my time and the time of others, I am more attentive, more grateful, more creatively responsive, and hopefully more loving. I am especially more patient. I have discovered that my desire to control and to plan time arises from a lack of patience with God, with myself and with others. Time can so easily irritate. When time doesn’t go our way we so quickly blame others, we forget that time is God coming to us disguised by our life. God is hidden and revealed in time–in every occurrence and rhythm. Time is given to us to discover we are not God. When we are grateful for each moment, those moments that fill us with joy and those moments that we endure patiently, we find God’s steadfast love and mercy, His beauty, goodness and presence. Better is one day or one moment in the presence of God than a thousand days or moments of absent and fragmented efficiency. May God rescue us from days of evil, days spent forgetful of time as a gift. How lovely it is to be God’s guest!

“From one person He made every nation. That they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should lie. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. for in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:26-28)

Time is not ours, but it is ours to enliven through God’s grace, the sharing of His Spirit with us. I am not suggesting that we plan nothing for our days. We do best with a rule of life – the rhythms given to us in time teach us that. But our plans should be held lightly so that we can be surprised by the abundant life God is always sharing with us and so that we learn to see interruptions as gifts of presence. Our plans should be spacious so that there are openings of silence, times when we can hear the present moment, look at the real with a long and loving gaze, and beauty, goodness and truth can take deep root in us. Our plans should be sketches in pencil that we draw and erase in communion with others. Our plans should reveal what is most important because the plans we make become a liturgy and teach us and others what cannot be taught. Our plans should deliberately help us remember God, remember we are not God. “Only hour by hour gratitude can overcome all temptations to resentment.” Our plans should be filled with self-offering and love because “Love makes space into paradise, and brings the timeless and eternal into time.” (Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron)

This day, this September will not come again. Thank God for it. Begin it with prayer, continue with hope, end with thanksgiving.

Deignan, K. (ed.). (2003). Thomas Merton: when the trees say nothing. Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books.
Rohr, R. (2011). Breathing under water. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press.
Vasiljevic, Bishop Maxim (2014). Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron: The thunderbolt of ever-living fire. Alhambra, CA: Sebastian Press.

Enter into your rest

For my colleagues just finishing the school year, it is that joyous (even if overshadowed by job-action) time of year. There is actually nothing better than the very beginning of a summer that stretches out in front of you filled with longed for and well-deserved rest, time to breathe, to be, to reconnect with your friends and family.

Rest is absolutely necessary, even for God, even for Christ. And there are many kinds of rest, but all require an intentional entering in or a putting down, or a letting go. I wish all kinds of sanctifying and healing rest for you.

When I think about rest, I am reminded of two yoga poses – the warrior pose and the child pose. The warrior pose has every limb extended and pointed, and every muscle tightened – it a pose that is alert, in control, ready to attack and defend. It is the antithesis of rest. The child pose is the epitome of rest. The body is folded and prostrated. The head is lowered, defenseless, arms are outstretched and every muscle is softened. It is a welcome relief, even if only entered into for a moment. Humility, offering, and gratitude are present in this pose.

We experience both poses metaphorically in our lives and both are necessary, but I think we sometimes misunderstand them and misuse them (or at least I do). We tend to use the warrior pose in our interactions with others and the child pose towards our false selves – the self-indulgent prideful self. Our work lives are often experienced as a battle, a place where we have to prove ourselves, be alert, be strategic, be organized and efficient, be powerful. Our personal lives often lack discipline and we enter into a rest that isn’t really rest, it is usually merely escape and can’t possibly be sanctifying and healing.

I think the opposite is true. The warrior pose is really for battles with our ego and passions, for guarding our hearts with alertness, and the child pose is best used in our interactions with God and all others. I wonder what would change in our work lives if we entered into the rest of being a child while at work, if we let go of the need to be “over and against” all others, to fix and to figure out and to prove? What would our personal lives look if we took this time of summer rest to attend to our inner lives and war against the desire to prostrate before ourselves and sustain our selfishness and pride. If used this way the warrior pose may actually bring us the rest of inner peace at all times, and the child pose may actually bring us the strength made perfect weakness – the strength needed to heal a broken world.

Enter into your rest. If not yet ready for the warrior pose, the child pose towards God and others is a perfect way to begin.

Another teacher in the room

I have been thinking a lot about the need for spaciousness in any educational setting lately. The kind of space that allows life to blossom, questions to emerge, engaged and authentic exploration to happen, wisdom to be revealed, and true communion to occur. We often lament the lack of spaciousness in our educational contexts – lack of time, an overcrowded curriculum, limited resources, overwhelming diversity of needs – all valid laments and concerns and not easily ‘fixed’. So where can spaciousness be found? Where can calmer, clearer, harmonious educational endeavours happen – spacious endeavours that might actually alleviate some of the suffering that is ever-present?

I think this is an essential question for educators, open-ended and spacious in the sense that many answers can be revealed…if we are listening with warm and hopeful hearts. Flowers do not open in the icy winds of winter; they open in the warmth of spring.” (Abbot Vasileios)

One small but very rich answer was revealed to me today. I received a note from a person who participated in a curriculum conversation with me and several other colleagues. I was leading the conversation and she thanked me for letting her ‘interrupt’ and share her own thoughts and insights, to “allow another teacher in the room.” My response to her ‘interruptions’ at the time was one of gratitude – how wonderful that someone is building on my thoughts and ideas, refining them, translating them into new contexts, enhancing them. How wonderful that I, the ‘teacher’, get to listen and learn and be inspired by others.

I am always so grateful for other teachers in the room and they are always there: our students, parents, colleagues. And then there is the voice of the Holy – the One we hear when we remember we are on Holy ground. The One who is “heard in 1000 ways…and illumines a thousand places within you.” (Abbot Vasileios)

There is always another teacher in the room, always space for more.

Horizons and hope

I recently read that there is a very real biological reaction to looking towards the horizon. “Lifting our eyes to the hills” has an actual impact on the endomorphic system which is connected to ways we respond to pain and stress. It seems that we are biologically wired to benefit from a bigger perspective, to focus on more than what is going on in front of us or close around us.

I found this fact so interesting because I have definitely experienced this physical reaction myself and I think it also reflects a spiritual reality so often encouraged by the Psalmist. We are the ones God continually rescues out of the “pit and darkness” of our inability to lift our eyes, to see beyond ourselves and our circumstances. Lifting our eyes reminds us that we are little persons against a great landscape of God’s love and presence. Lifting our eyes renews our hope, helps us breathe, reconnects us to the light that can help us see our situations more clearly and hopefully. Our troubles are not as great as the enemy makes them out to us to be. (St. Anatoly)

I think there are many ways to think about horizons in education, many places we can lift our eyes. There is the horizon of all that is good, beautiful and true in education – the timeless aspects of our practice. I was reminded of this horizon during our graduation ceremonies on Friday and Saturday. Listening to beginning and experienced educators talk about why and how education makes a difference in the lives of others was encouraging and inspiring. These ideals, if not imposed harshly or rigidly, can keep inviting us further up and further in with new energy. They remind us of what could be and sometimes is, in the midst of all that is not. Teacher education programs deliberately teach ideals because they are a vision/horizon that continually beckons.

There is also the horizon of the present moment, when we find the strength to lift our eyes up and out. There is always some little good to do until the rest is revealed. There is always a more gentle or kind way to be with our students and our colleagues. There is always, even in the darkest, saddest moments, evidence of love and some small beauty or joy to celebrate. Being present to the moment is impossible when we are focused on our own needs, locked in our minds in frustration, anxiety, helplessness or sorrow. We may not know exactly what we are doing every day as educators, but moments open wide in front of us and lead us if we are attentive and willing. The kingdom of heaven is found in every microcosm – it isn’t far from us. A turning of our eyes is often all that is required.

Another horizon is the horizon of discipline, or routine or structure. In a sense these observances function like a rhythm, helping us be part of the music even if we can’t sing. Students need these rhythms as much as we do. Peaceful moments become possible against a horizon of discipline. Spiritual disciplines and the liturgical cycle function in the same way, they keep us connected, keep us turning, keep us lifting up our eyes.

The horizon of presence is experienced when we lift our eyes to our students and our colleagues and to the One who sees us and hears us. This lifting is also a lifting of our hearts in love and gratitude. We turn our eyes to the Other and all others because we know where our help comes from. We are reminded that we are not independent, that we need one another and the mercy of God. Gratefulness is always a going up, never a going down.

Each glimpse of a horizon is a gift. Whenever we are experiencing a lack of hope, tightness in our chests, difficulty breathing, when we need rescuing from the pit, may God give us a glimpse of a horizon, renewing our strength and filling our hearts with gladness, setting our feet in a wide place.

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