Sunday, May 7, 2017

Something Like Serendipity

Stories. Sometimes the storyteller spins a yarn so enthralling we're held on edge. Other stories share pivotal lessons, but if the timing isn't right or the storyteller fails to capture the audience, the story and the lesson fall flat.  The stories I encountered today held some powerful lessons.

The first was in church.  Father Mark offered a perspective on sheep and shepherds I hadn't considered before.  For most, the notion of being a sheep is negative.  No one wants to be associated with a mindless and blind follower, indistinct from the flock.  But sheep don't blindly follow.  As Father explained, a shepherd opens the gate for his flock, he calls them by name, he cares for them and ensures their safety, he leads them to water and watches over them.  There is no need for a good shepherd to count his flock because he knows his flock, he knows if a sheep is missing because he knows each by name. We've accepted the false idea that sheep will blindly follow anyone.  That's not so.  Sheep follow their shepherd; they heed his voice, no one else's.  We may belong to a flock, but it doesn't mean we aren't also independent and unique and named.

The caution here is not to try to undo our "sheepness," but to be cognizant of the shepherds we choose to follow.  How many times in my life have I heeded the call of a shepherd who was not kind, was not good, did not care about my well-being?  But I followed the shepherd anyway.  Father Mark gave me pause today: Who are the shepherds in our lives?  Whose call do I follow?  Am I following a good shepherd or a false one?  A shepherd watches over, nurtures, and tends; he doesn't merely herd.

The concept was interesting. It made me think.  But then he hit me with a whammy.  Sometimes the shepherd is within us, not an outside force.  The shepherd might be the voice in your head -- your thoughts.  Is that internal shepherd kind? Does he nurture you? Care for you? Tend to you? Keep you safe from harm? Love you? Is the internal shepherd good? Maybe the sermon wasn't revolutionary.  But it was a story that found me at the right moment.  The parting message was this: Sheep aren't blind.  They are individuals.  They are called by name. They choose who they will follow.  Choose a good shepherd.

If I'd heard that homily, that story, 10 years ago, it wouldn't have resonated.  I probably wouldn't have even paid attention.  I'd be counting down the sections left before Mass was over: Introductory Rites, Penitential Rite; Gloria; Collection, Liturgy of the Word, First Reading, Responsorial Psalm, Second Reading, Gospel, Homily, Profession of Faith, Prayer of the Faithful, Liturgy of the Eucharist, Gifts, Lord's Prayer, Communion, Blessing and Dismissal. There's comfort in ritual; you know how much is left.

There was a long stretch in there when I didn't choose God. And, to be clear, I'm not some crazy born-again full-fledged practicing Catholic.  The Catholic Church and I have a great number of unresolved issues, but we've kind of reached a place of acceptance and love, in spite of our differences (kind of like a brother you didn't choose who's your polar opposite and he drives you crazy most of the time, but you share DNA and upbringing so you love him anyway).  We attend Mass most Sundays.  I want my boys to grow up with a religion to turn to if they need it, if they want it.  In the interest of honesty, I still haven't learned the new translation of the Nicene Creed (I sort of just stumble through it and trail off a lot).  But I do love stories and, in the Catholic Church, they are bountiful and familiar and new all at the same time.  In college I worked on an organic farm in the summers.  The farmer I worked for told me that there would come a time when I would want God, when I'd need faith and religion.  He said maybe it would be the birth of a child or the loss of a parent or an illness.  He told me that he didn't know a lot -- he didn't finish high school, he didn't go to college.  He told me that he knows only three things for sure:

1. If you plant a seed and give it water and sunlight it will grow.

2. It's better to break your back doing something you love and believe in than to sacrifice yourself for something you don't.  Don't worry about money.  That part works itself out.

3. Everyone reaches a point in his/her life when he/she needs something beyond himself/herself.  God is patient and forgiving and He'll be there when you want Him.

Farmer Bill was right.  Stories.  There are always stories, if we choose only to listen.

The instructor in my Sunday night yoga class has an uncanny ability to craft a class focus that seems to meet me exactly where I am, to offer exactly what I need.  Much of it is rooted in story. I'm the poster-child for a Type A personality.  And I don't think it's a bad thing to be Type A, but it's important to recognize both the strengths and weaknesses we A-types possess.  Tonight she shared an old and familiar anecdote about catching monkeys in India as a way to help us think about detachment.

To catch a monkey, you need only drop a handful of nuts into a jar with a small opening, large enough only for the monkey to slip his hand through. The monkey puts his hand into the jar, grabs the nuts, and then finds that he can't get his fist out through the opening. If the monkey would just let go of the nuts, he could escape. But he won't.

She encouraged us to think about the things that are trapping us and to simply let go of them so we can remove our hands from the jar.  It reminds me of a story from the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna explains to Arjuna that detachment is doing the right thing for its own sake -- it needs to be done-- without worrying about success or failure.  I believe Eliot borrowed this advice in "Four Quartets": "For us, there is only the trying.  The rest is not our business."  But not worrying about success or failure?  How?

Moon pose featured prominently tonight.   I hate moon pose.  I suck at moon pose.  I struggle with balance.  Even when I get it, I'm wobbly, uncertain, far from confident.  And I can't help but look around the room at these other yogis who are dominating moon pose.  So, it comes as no surprise that this might be a pose my instructor would want to draw upon as we focused on the art of detachment. It's not easy to detach from failure, from what doesn't come easily.  And I was struggling, wobbling, losing my breath, in poor form, and frustrated, but the instructor stood near me, placed her hand on the small of my back, and whispered, "Just open your hand.  Take your hand out of the jar." And I took a breath. I attempted to release some of the tension.  I softened my jaw.  And it was better.  Not great, but better. Closer.  I tried, to borrow Eliot.

There was an element of serendipity today with these stories.  They layer rather nicely, I think.  Both require us to know ourselves. Both remind us that we have the option to choose. How often do I recognize that I'm following a bad shepherd, that I'm unhappy and frustrated, when all I need to do is open my hand and choose a better voice, a better shepherd, a better path?  It requires strength and truth to break free of negative habits.  It requires assessment and honesty.  But, ultimately, it requires action. So I'm thinking about that as I move into this week -- I'm working to intentionally seek good shepherds and to let go of the snares that trap me.  The stories have brought me here.

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