With or without deep human connections, is all the difference...
When I began my years of service in the "Chinatown" of Salinas, with the hungry, homeless, and otherwise marginalized, it was with a youthful fervor that had me thinking that I would / could do something really grand: like end homelessness... But thirty years after those first 65 egg-salad sandwiches given away on a street corner, (I had changed) and I was asking student volunteers as to what they thought the definition of "homeless" was. Invariably, the answers would be sensible, like "Homeless is to be unhoused", or "Homeless is to be too poor to afford rent", obviously correct answers, as far as they went...
After a pregnant pause, I would offer my definition,"To be homeless means that no one would even notice if you simply disappeared..." Latching onto Peter Maurin's favorite word "radical", and his preferred definition of "going to the roots" of a problem, I could see clearly that this "with or without" of deep human connections was the be-all of any possible potential of a positive human life experience. I had learned that I was on the Chinatown streets to be that vital connecting link for horribly lonely lives -- and discovering at the same time a vast cave of emptiness in myself that ended up being filled by the love returned to me by my sisters and brothers whom I served... Wouldn't you know it, but the "server" ends up receiving far more than he / she ever gives...
Sure, over the course of my thirty-odd years on the street, we had served over two million meals, opened a number of shelters, and began numerous other projects, but what I learned was the absolute importance of human connection and touch, of seeing into the eyes of the folks coming to us for help, and just as importantly, of listening to their individual stories... As the years went by, I was cooking less and less, and most of my days were given over to just talking with our guests: and this is what I really want to say: while love is extolled as the be-all / end-all of our lives, that truth is a tad bit off the mark: it is, rather (or more), "I see you and I'm amazed!" This is it! This is what we all crave!
Yep: a life without a home is a miserable life indeed: but what makes for a home? A life without the security of a food source, or of intentional-other-person-sex, is likewise a miserable form of existence. But to go through a seemingly endless string of days without the divine pleasure of another human being communicating in their own way, "I see you and I'm amazed!" is to be functionally homeless -- even if one is living indoors somewhere, perhaps even in the midst of a crowd...
Shifting once again back to Maurin's "radical", it is only the "deeply homed", the folks who have, or have a reasonable hope to again experience "home", who can summon the will or intention to expand the boundaries of their compassion to include a multitude of "others", possibly up to the mystic "everyone". The fundamental human hunger for "being wanted", for experiencing the wonder of another set of eyes to be looking at "me" exclaiming, "I see you and I'm amazed!" is the only solution to the problems that we face as persons, as communities, and as entire peoples. If one is not "deeply homed" in being wanted, how the hell is that person going to summon the grace of believing immigrant Dreamers are worthy of our American fellowship? If one is not "deeply homed" in being wanted, why the hell would that person imagine social justice, economic equality, environmental regeneration, as necessities for everyone? The personal is ultimately profoundly social, and the social is inescapably linked to the well-being of the person: every person. To understand this, is to become sincerely radicalized: everyone and everything matters.
The White House
I find it quite interesting that the political party that for years and years now has identified itself as "the party of traditional values", is seemingly not the least interested in "if", but only in "who". With all the hub-bub going on with "revelations" of a President "on the loose", possibly a danger to both our democracy and world peace, and now to top it all off, an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times that outlines a secret and quiet rebellion in the White House: and we find Republicans urging lie-detector tests to discover the author of the op-ed! An offended Mr. Trump is tossing around the threatening word of "treason"!
I think the dilly-dally of "who" a curious waste of time: anyone who is not asking "if" is either working for Mr. Trump or his own advancement, not for America. But even more important than "if" is "us". We, through our electoral system, put Mr. Trump in the White House: so it is "us" that needs a reckoning. The radical disconnect between our collective "values" and "myths" and our continuing reality of strict adherence to both force and greed (in service to Power) -- as both national policy and cultural identity -- is the beating heart of our societal problems.
What Mr. Trump lacks in verbal clarity is not shared by Israel's Mr. Netanyahu who has said, "The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end, peace is made with the strong." No doubt Mr. Trump thinks that might have said these words first! Regardless, they do clearly articulate the perspective of Mr. Trump -- and also of our national policies and cultural values. This is who we are. But is it who we really want to be?
The so-called "operating dysfunction" going on in the White House is nothing other than the operating dysfunction of our entire nation and national identity! We practice what Mr. Netanyahu preaches, and yet we are perhaps the most "religious" nation on Earth -- and many of us like to think the "most Christian". And therein lies the root of national dysfunction. In every way we practice and extol the necessity of greed, of unlimited profits, and of the "best system ever devised by humanity". In every way we practice and extol the necessity of force -- not the gentle force of Gandhi or Thoreau, but the rapacious force of economic exploitation and oppression, and when that loses its effectiveness, of "the greatest military might the world has ever seen".
How do we hear the words of Jesus, of Yeshua bar Alaha, on the Sundays we attend church? Do we uncomfortably squirm when we hear "Woe to you rich" and "Blessed are you poor"? Do we close our ears when the words over the sound system are, "Love your enemies and pray for those who use you badly"? Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump are both counting on all of us to completely ignore the words of Jesus: to believe that what we do does not really matter: that what matters is only the lip service of a "profession of faith"! Such a profession of "faith" allows us to hate our black neighbor, hire police who will shoot him in the back, and guards to man the prisons that hold the survivors of the "war" on our American streets.
Such a profession of "faith" allows us to construct and keep rolling ("The best economy ever!" -- Mr. Trump) a predatory capitalism that is chewing up and spitting out the Planet that we call home: a predatory capitalism that is divvying up resources into the hands of a few, while 1 in 6 children in America suffer from daily food insecurity, and thousands of others around the world suffer the effects of malnutrition every single day, every year. Every minute given over to thinking of "who" may have written his anonymous op-ed and not of "how" we build a world of "small unities", of a new global rEvolution, in keeping with an "Activation of Faith", is our dysfunction and a complete waste of time and energy (which is exactly what Power wants of us).
In this day of Mr. Trump, what does it mean to be "seeking the luminous heart"?
I have written that it is incumbent upon us to cultivate an active resistance -- rooted in contemplative experience -- to the ideology of profit, privilege, and power as exemplified by Mr. Trump. While his "fans" boast of supporting his border and immigration policies and verbiage, those of us to the "left" of his perspective look with alarm at the separation of children from parents and the holding of those children in what amounts to low-level prisons. And with the news announcing Justice Kennedy's retirement, I think that we need to give a little bit of extra time to the clarification of our thought... and following actions...
Thinking simply, and perhaps crassly, we will be tempted to think of enemies, or at least of "us" as opposed to "them". ICE for example thoroughly pushes my buttons. But how anxious would I be if the Directors of the NRA were the ones being detained and threatened with deportation to Russia? Would you give them a chuckle or two? I probably would! I think that our resistance and contemplation -- our adherence to the Way -- requires of us something deeper. Something that expands into wide vistas...
The ideology of Mr. Trump and of those who dream of their own "advancement" into the high realm of profit, privilege, and power is a dance with a partner not worth holding. That which opens onto the "Way" is something entirely "other" than the pitiful dreams of the rich man or the seeker of riches. The "Way" is all about seeking the luminous with which to really and truly live! This heart has nothing at all to do with the Unholy Trinity of Mr. Trump.
To be seeking the luminous heart with which to really and truly live is to be about the "secret" work of living the Beloved Community right now. Why must you think that you have to wait? As a devotee of the Little Brown Lady, I am certain that I am on the right side of history: justice, equality, a vibrant democracy, cooperativism, simple living, harmony, gentleness, gender reconciliation, a spirituality of Oneness, serving the regeneration of Planet Earth, and nonviolence are the sign, symbols, and samples of the New Creation -- even now -- being birthed among us! The "mystic kiss of redemption" is freely given to all who surrender to the rEvolution of transfiguration! The power consciousness of Mr. Trump has nothing over us... The visionary imagination will light the path of all who are seeking a luminous heart! So ask your partner to this dance into the future!
Where to look to find Jesus?
Perhaps the young reporter in the above photo was surprised or perplexed to see a Franciscan friar carrying a sign at a street demonstration... perhaps, too, she came ready with the question she most wanted answered, "Where to look to find Jesus?"
Perhaps the Franciscan friar began his answer to her question with a ready glib, like, "Well, you better not look for him on FOX news!" But, for the sake of this blog, let's say that he said, "It is precisely in street contemplation that I recognize the Face of Jesus. The street is one very special place. It's where I can most be myself. I can simply be honest. I can hold a sign such as this one, and witness to the Jesus of the Gospels who enjoined his followers to love the stranger in their midst. I can repeat to whomever asks the politics of Jesus: "Whatsoever you do to the least person among you, you do the same to me."
So, according to the Franciscan friar, the Face of Jesus is the face of the young woman lying dead on the ground -- shot by a Border Patrol agent (but let's be honest: she was shot by each one of us: we paid for his gun, his bullets, his supposed training, and his salary). The Face of Jesus is the Face of Every Immigrant reviled by the voices of white privilege and power! The Face of Jesus is the Face of Every African-American beaten, choked, or shot by police. The Face of Jesus is the Face of Every American Farmer who has committed suicide in the face of staggering debt. The Face of Jesus is the Face of Every Child who is hungry or youth who is homeless. The Face of Jesus is the Face of Every Woman who is not treated as equal to men, who is harmed, beaten, raped, exploited, or murdered by men. Jesus means diddly-squat to Americans if we think "I was hungry and you fed me" is anywhere reflected in the cowardice of both churches and politicians...
Street contemplation is the raw Gospel complete without the theological and cultural justifications for oppression and suffering. Love is either an action or it is a excuse -- in which case, it has ceased to be love at all. Love is action implemented as practice and policy! Love is Loud and Clear: every human being is the Face of Jesus: that Black Muslim is Jesus in disguise so you better damn well create the conditions necessary for him to thrive. That Honduran Immigrant is Jesus in disguise so you better damn well create the conditions for her to be safe and thrive. That Baptist Farmer is Jesus in disguise so you better damn well create the conditions for him to thrive. And so on!
Street contemplation is the reception of the Gospel, open and raw, within one's awakening heart. Everything is connected to everything else. We simply cannot pretend that "going to Church on Sunday" has any practical purpose at all if on Monday through Friday we live as if there are not consequences to the deserts we have made of our hearts. Those wastelands of self and cultural deceit are the crosses we have to carry into our own transformation: we have been made for Bliss and we extol Bull. Enough! So go sit on a city sidewalk somewhere and let yourself bleed through the cuts of cultural delusion until you are empty enough for some radical grace to enter and renew your mind. You have within the makings of a very holy being. For reals...
What are the conditions that make for the possibility of happiness?
It seems to me that this is perhaps the most fundamental question that we should be considering. But can we, though, even begin to answer it? If one were to correlate happiness with longevity, the conclusions of the "Blue Zone" studies would answer in the affirmative. In short, "Blue Zones" are the unique few global locations that have the longest-lived persons. These folks share some common characteristics, such as gardening and walking, knowing their purpose for focus and how to relax, eating a plant-based diet (a lot of beans), and are moderate drinkers, belong to a faith community, celebrate their families, and "tribe" in close networks of support. Many of these "blue zone" folks live to be over one hundred and remain active while doing so!
But can one really be happy if he is living thusly while much of the rest of the world seems to be going to hell in a hand-basket?
Again, it seems to me that collectively we need to be "public" about the means for cultivating the ability to live in "soulful harmony". The Parliament of the World's Religions issued its Declaration "A Global Ethic" a number of years ago which still has value as we consider the conditions that make for the possibility of happiness. The Parliament listed "four irrevocable directives", they are: 1. Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life; 2. Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order; 3. Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness; and 4. Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women. One might conclude that these commitments fly in the face of power politics (and everything else), terrorism, mass shootings and incarceration, hate crimes, and the elevation of greed as a social virtue. However, if it is our goal to foster the cultivation of "soulful harmony" within and for oneself, within one's circle, and the expansion of that circle to all the world, then these commitments further elucidate the findings of the "Blue Zones".
Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement with Dorothy Day, used to write and speak about "making it easier for people to be happy." Doesn't all of this boil down to whether or not we will summon the will to strive to re-shape our environments to facilitate the possibility for happiness -- for everyone with whom we live? Is there a first step more needed than that of building within our own lives empathy and wisdom?
Empathy is the learned ability -- through the examples of others -- as how to recognize the suffering of still others as one's own, and then the will to move ahead to ease that suffering: this is also the only path into experiential wisdom (the only wisdom that really counts). If we can't summon the grace to care, why in the world would we pretend that we are following the teaching of Some Sublime Dude when he said that we are to love others as we love ourselves?
Here's a summary of the religion, politics, and economics of Jesus (from St. Luke 6: 20 - 26): "Beautiful are you who are poor, the Garden of Eternal Delight is yours! Wah-hoo! Beautiful are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled with extra to share! Wah-hoo! Beautiful are you who cry now in your suffering, for you will have the last laugh! Wah-hoo! Beautiful are you when people hate you and reject you because of your work for justice: remember that is how very many of the Great Ones have been treated... Ah, but as for you wealth-dogs wagging your tails at unlimited profits, your days are numbered! Wah-hoo! And as for you who feast while children die of hunger and live in poverty, your days are numbered! Wah-hoo! And as for you who laugh now in the buffoonery of privilege and power, your days are numbered! Wah-hoo! And as for you who wrap lies around your tongues while fellow rogues extoll your praises, your days are numbered, for in the very same way have many a scoundrel been lifted up! Wah-hoo!"
Now, the "Way of Tears" is an activated compassion that knows the suffering of every other to be, in fact, her very own. This essential identification with the Suffering Poor (the Suffering Christ-in-the-Poor) is the spiritual identification with Jesus that really matters! One could "go to Church" seven days a week, but if he still watches and believes FOX News, it won't matter one whit. Compassion stands on Truth: Truth requires Justice: Justice demands Equality: Equality builds Peace: Together, these stunning virtues make for a "social" and "soulful" Harmony...
Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement with Dorothy Day, used to say that "the poor are the ambassadors of God". In other words, it is precisely in how we treat the poor among us that we treat "God". This is not an obtuse point: it is the very crux of genuine spirituality, regardless of personal beliefs or opinions: it is meant for each and every one of us precisely because it is the right way to live! Do you see the "illegal immigrant"? Welcome her into your home and community. Do you see the Muslim? Sit down and break bread with him. Do you see the gay couple? Invite them to the ballgame with you. Every other is your very self unveiled: we have been tasked by the Master Poet to love others as we love ourselves: this is the Christian faith without the poo-hoo-ey. And one of the special things about this is that one need not be Christian to practice it: one could be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Atheist, or Other, and one could still practice, and unleash, their love-without-limits!
The Summer of Love Gave Birth To a Dream
The cultural shift that "began" with the Beat Poets in the 1950's, only came into focus with the Civil Rights, Women's, American Indian, Gay, Farmworker, and Peace Movements. Hippies and Hare Krishna deepened the cultural critique: East finally met West at Woodstock, in Airports, on city streets, in alternative communities, and even in old monasteries... Political assassinations, police oppression, FBI subterfuge and murders, and the violence endemic in drug and alcohol addictions drove the counterculture underground: oftentimes into Catholic Worker communities, into Zen Centers, small rural communities, and oftentimes into the "loneliness" of solitary journeys into awakening...
The immoral Iraq war of volition instigated by Bush / Cheney began to bring into our national consciousness, once again, the clear necessity of a renewed cultural / spiritual critique. By a similar token, the election of Barack Obama unleashed the latent racist nationalism of the Far Right, culminating in the election of Donald Trump -- of course, through the unique formulation of the Electoral College. A re-invigorated women's movement, a student-led "March for Our Lives", a Black Lives Matter movement, the Science March, along with the stunning resurgence of an "alt-right", Neo-nazis, science deniers, profit-at-all-cost-seekers, and war hawks make this time, our time, perhaps the turning point of both American and world history.
American author Mark Twain wrote, "If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything." But what is truth in an era in which political and religious operatives and zealots deliberately obfuscate any and all truth -- to the point of constructing "alternative facts"? In this asinine un-reality, the search for truth genuinely means a whole lot more than something! If "the Summer of Love gave birth to a dream" it is equally possible that the election of Mr. Trump has given us a "still-born nightmare": the nightmare of "lies-become-truth, and truth-become-folly"...
In Hindu philosophy, the Divine Beloved is "defined" as "Sat-Chit-Ananda" or "Truth, Being, Bliss". In Christianity, these words are said to be of Yeshua the Poet of Nazareth, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life": which is a way of articulating the exact same thing: Truth = Truth, Life = Being, and Way = Bliss. Truth, here, has nothing to do with anyone's opinion: Truth is the condition of G-d, the Holy One: that One cannot exist or have Being separate from Truth. By the same token, Truth is also a condition of our being: we don't really come alive until we are in contact -- through and through -- with Truth. Truth defines, as much as either Being or Bliss, the very nature of G-d. To what degree are you / I free from guile, deceit, or lies?
If one is at all inclined towards honesty (the little sister of Truth), then one must inevitably realize that Guile, Deceit, and Lies -- as if they have a human reality -- are vomiting (what a stink!) all over this precious blue Planet, all over our democratic institutions, all over science, all over the constructs of our civilization: truth is manipulated, trimmed, and savaged down to an acceptable size so as to be able to be managed by operatives, experts, and greedy bastards: bastards with no desire whatsoever to cultivate the humility necessary to step out upon "the Way"...
So, what is "the Way"?
The Way is Mystery (read the Tao Te Ching): Way means path, to be sure, but it also means the "darkness of the New Moon", which is the "unknowing" of both a child and the wisdom of the humble woman / man: Way means an ordinary practice "washing dishes is making love, making love is cultivating beauty, cultivating beauty is unleashing imagination, unleashing imagination is re-creating time into the service of divine possibilities, re-creating time into the service of divine possibilities is a rip roaring belly laugh and the deep satisfaction of this moment - every moment"... Way is simply Bliss...
Sat-Chit-Ananda is supposed to be our name! (This is actually a magical mystery secret, but hey, this is no time for dilly-dallying!) Each one of us has been made in the image and likeness of the Holy One: we have been made so as to be the means by which That One Knows Itself (this is a challenging thing to absorb, but hey again, aren't you ready for a Big Thought?) Seriously, look at any number of pictures of Mr. Trump: search for his smile... Then look at any number of pictures of the Dalai Lama, or of Fr. Bede Griffiths, or of Nelson Mandela: search for their smiles and compare those smiles to the smile of Mr. Trump: do you see the differences? But I write this primarily to underscore your / my responsibility to practice our essential Truth, Being, and Bliss...
I am offering here a serious proposal to our nation's Republicans
and Democrats in how to bridge our political and cultural divide:
Let's start by welcoming a little honesty into the conversation: we are not at the point where anyone, neither Republican nor Democrat, can effectively compromise on a gun control bill in Congress. So let's drop the charade and hyperbole. Just drop it.
Instead of anything at all about gun control, how about we simply shred the box that we are all in? Yep, shred it, and when there's only pieces strewn about on the ground, let's think of something totally different...
I mean, since we are out of the box, why not be creatively daring? Why not unite behind a ten year plan, but not just any ol' ten year plan, but something really audacious... How about, say, a ten year plan of maybe ten billion dollars to teach every kid in every public school in America, from 4K through high school a musical instrument? And after ten years, as many kids as possible will come to the National Mall in DC for a grand concert that concludes with Beethoven's "Ode to Joy"!
The kids who can't go to DC can meet in their state Capitals for a similar concert... and the kids who can't get to their state Capital meet in their local communities, again, for the same concert. Why not?
Seriously, instead of wasting our breath in yelling at each other, and both sides refusing to yield any ground to the other, why not do something entirely different and creative? Besides, if our children -- all children -- learn a musical instrument (and every child can!) -- several things will happen: music factually opens new neural pathways in the brain: these new pathways lead to an elevated ability to effectively channel emotions into constructive experiences: the experience of community relationships will deepen: and families will learn the benefits of musical calm and delight...
Shortly before leaving Chinatown-Salinas Soup Kitchen for my sabbatical, I dug out of our trash bin a cardboard sign previously used by a homeless person for panhandling. What did it say? Well, first you've got to picture a big cardboard box with a cut-out space for handholds... The poor dude who tried to make his sign wrote: "HOMELESS VET IN NEED OF..." Exactly where the cut-out was, the Vet started to write "HELP".. but he didn't plan it well, so the "P" turned out to be a "D". So it read, "HOMELESS VET IN NEED OF HELD".
Let's be utterly honest, that homeless vet stumbled upon a golden weave, an absolute truth, and the solution to all of our gun violence: we are in need of "held". Someone has got to hold us. We've got to hold each other. But right now we are so divided that we need a bridge to reach across: why not construct a bridge of music? Why not agree to teach every kid a musical instrument? Why not agree to one humongous concert in which we all either play or sing the "Ode to Joy"? Right now, we are a homeless country, all huddled in the outhouses of our opinions. Right now, we can decide to let music open the locked doors of our hearts: if we enter there, everything will change, and we'll be able to figure things out, and we'll be able to find all the ones who are in need of "held"...
In utter seriousness, why should I care?
Why should I care about the water in Flint? I'll not be drinking it...
Why should I care if hundreds of thousands of Dreamers are rounded up and sent back to wherever their parents came from? What's the likelihood I'll ever even meet one of them? Why should I care about the poverty and heroin use in West Virginia? I'll not be planning a visit there any time soon. Why should I care about the struggles of folks in Puerto Rico? It isn't like they are real Americans anyway. Why should I care about cuts in Food Stamps, Social Security, or Medicare? I'm doing pretty good. Why should I care about police killing blacks? I obey the law, and besides, I'm not black. Why should I care about the sexual harassment or of women or of domestic violence? Hollywood women make too much money and I haven't hit anyone since seventh grade. Why should I care about Muslims? They ain't Christian so they don't matter to me. Why should I care about climate change? I mean, seriously, when Jesus returns he's gonna burn this whole planet anyway. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. All you folks with your danged political correctness can just go and jump in a lake -- and don't bother coming back.
Is this too simplistic?
Of course it is. But it also articulates a fundamental opportunity: in our every attitude, opinion, choice, and belief we are confronted with challenges and connections. Whether we like it or not, the opportunity we have is that of recognizing that whatever we do to one another, we are in "spiritual fact", doing to ourselves. Anyone who is telling you otherwise is simply profiting from pulling the wool over your eyes. The opportunity that we have, right here and right now, is to snuggle-up with the possibility that "love one another" actually means something!
I'm betting that it does!
I'm betting with the mystics -- and the far-out quantum physicists -- that everything is connected! Everything: from star shine to green algae, from clean water to health care for all: everything is an opportunity to live by a vision! Seriously! If we were to so decide: in five years we could eliminate hunger and poverty on this entire Planet! In five years we could eliminate our dependence upon fossil fuels, employ all those who currently work in oil and coal, and tens of thousands more, in new energy developments! In five years we could eliminate drug abuse and homelessness through an awakening of our capacity for greatness! In five years we could eliminate the threats of terrorism and war by vigorous policies and practices of international respect, dialogue, cooperation, and the construction of justice for all as the foundation of all relations! In five years we could eliminate the fears that facilitate greed and the abuses of power by giving men a hundred-year vacation from economic and political decision-making!
Seriously: mystically-speaking, we could accept the opportunity of this moment in human history, and be and do what we became human for: to serve, to adore, and to love one another as the Door to the Divine: seriously, everything could change in just one hour, if we would but start loving others as our very self... Nothing else would be necessary: we would immediately know how to make miracles happen everywhere...
Seriously! I'm not kidding at all! Why should I care? I should care because I am human, I am alive, and I have the power to live as an agent of compassion! Besides, living like this would be a hell-of-a lot of fun!
Robert Daniel Smith was privileged to serve the homeless and marginalized for 30 years in Salinas, California. Together with his wife, Michelle, they founded an intentional community called the 'Companions of the Way', also in Salinas. Robert and Michelle are community organizers, Catholic Worker renegades, sacred activists, writers, poets, artists, Divine Mother devotees, and practitioners of Kriya Yoga as taught by Rev. Ellen Grace O'Brian of the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment. Michelle is also a Montessori public school teacher. Robert is also an ordained Interfaith Minister.