12 April 2013


Here's one I'd never heard of before:
"Sonder" - n. - the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk."
I had experienced it before; I just didn't know it had a name.  

Sometimes, when riding the CTA, for instance, or driving down the highway, it occurs to me that everyone around me is playing his or her own tune, marching to be beat of his or her own drum, wrestling with his or her own demons, and aiming at his or her own happiness.  I see them for a 40-minute ride or for a quick pass on the interstate, and that is all the connection we will likely ever have.

Sometimes the connections have a bit more of a lifespan.  I have students a semester at a time.  I have neighbors that might be around a year or ten or more.  I have had playmates, classmates, roommates and housemates.  I have friendships going back over thirty years, colleagues going back over twenty, and fellow sangha members going back over ten.  In the end, whether for a day or a decade, the connection is one of many, has its stops and starts, and may have greater significance for the other person(s) or for myself.  I may factor you more into my narrative than you factor me into yours, for instance.

For the most part, though, the basic truth remains: I am on some irreducible level but a bit player in others' scripts as they are but bit players in mine.  If I'm lucky, I might get involved with some one person enough to use the term "spouse" and a few people enough to use the term "friend."  Beyond that, I might have a few score of acquaintances, some few hundred people I recognize by sight, and, well, that's about it out of a lot of almost seven billion on the planet.

The definition above is taken from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.  I have to say, I don't perceive it as a sorrow but more as the basis of a quiet joy.  You see, it is precisely because I don't know you very well that I can feel honored to be let in on your life.  When I realize I really don't know what's going on with you, I can find in you a source of fascination and growth.  Whatever you let me in on becomes a gift, not just a matter of course, and you remain a source of mystery for me all the same because there is so much more that I am as yet (or can ever really become) aware of.

Like the silence which makes sound, sound, and like the amorphous background that makes objects, objects, our everyday anonymity and obscurity is that which makes friends, friends and lovers, lovers and fellow travelers on the Way, brothers and sisters.

07 April 2013

Sighs Too Deep for Words

At work I was invited to be a member of a committee formed earlier this academic year, the Inter-Religious Council on Dialogue and Spirituality.  Our job description is both simple and not-so-simple:
The mission of the Inter-Religious Council on Dialogue and Spirituality is to support and advance religious diversity in Valparaiso University under the auspices of the Provost’s Office. To this end, the Council regularly assesses resources, services, and needs relating to religions and religious communities at the University and makes recommendations to individuals, groups, committees and offices who can take appropriate action.
It's simple, because it kind of makes us look like a brokerage firm, lining up needs with ways and means to satisfy them.  It's not-so-simple, because supporting and advancing religious diversity at Valpo is a task that ranges from the obvious to the ambiguous to the contradictory. 

Here's a case in point.  At our meeting this past week, we were thinking through ways of highlighting the holidays and observance days of the various religions represented on campus.  Now Valpo has an established Morning Prayer period in the class day, and a Protestant Christian service is held in the main chapel at that time.  I suggested that one way of accomplishing some religious diversity goals might be to have a different tradition lead the Morning Prayer on one of their respective holidays, a Jewish service for, say, Yom Kippur or a Buddhist service for Vesak.

I was taken aback at the push-back the idea received from one of the committee members.  He wasn't terribly articulate on his reasons, but he was quite animated in his objection.  "We cannot allow this to happen!" he repeated several times, each time more vociferously than before.

There is some back-story here.  Valpo has maintained a close historical and cultural, though not administrative or financial, tie to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LC-MS) since its purchase by the lay Lutheran University Association in 1925.  Although independent of the LC-MS, the campus chapel has been understood to be an LC-MS chapel, with an LC-MS University Pastor until quite recently when a female pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was appointed as a University Pastor as well.

Here's the problem: LC-MS folks are prohibited from praying with anyone else, even another non-LC-MS Christian.  Pastor Cox's appointment at Valpo was a cause for scandal in some LC-MS circles, and LC-MS pastors have been chastised for taking part in interfaith services in the wake of 9-11 and in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.

I don't know what prayer is that it would be something one should be either prohibited from or skeptical about doing with others.  I get that the words one uses may not equate with the words another person uses, but I don't believe so much rides on the words that they should be something that divides rather than possibly unites us.  Even within the Christian tradition there is a recognition of the inadequacy of the expression of our prayer: "[W]e do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." Rom 8:26  I have to wonder whether the inverse obtains, that when we assert that we (alone) know how to pray as we ought, the Spirit stops acting on our behalf.

We're funny creatures, we humans.  We are part of something bigger than we will ever comprehend with our thought and language and science and scholarship.  We know this on some level, but in our attempts to talk about it or address it, we bumble along, with nothing sounding quite right.  Silence is best, of course, but sometimes we do have to speak.  Let that speech come from the depth of our realization, not from a book or symbol or catechism.  Let it be fit for the occasion, right and proper for the audience.  Let it start when it needs to start, and end when it needs to end.  Then, perhaps, all our singing and dancing and talking and praying will become the voice of the Dharma, the speechless sigh of the Living God, if you will, in all its wonder and beauty and challenge and awe.

03 April 2013

Resurrection 101

So the other evening after a sitting, a new Center regular, a young guy in his early 20's, said that over the weekend he and his folks had been trying to figure out this whole Easter business.  Seems they'd never been terribly religious, and they didn't quite know what it was all about, so they turned to Wikipedia for answers.

I found myself entering into the discussion the way an addict goes after his drug.  I don't know why, but I feel some kind of internal obligation to put the very best spin on most religious traditions.  In the end, I acknowledge and respect that these have at their core deep elements of truth and the ability to move people in the direction of compassion and selflessness, and I am eager to keep them from being caricatured and stripped of their power.  And so, thinking I could do better than Wikipedia (not hard), I held forth, dismissing the zombie/resuscitated corpse view and steering him instead toward a more nuanced understanding of the resurrection.

Stupid me.

I should have just kept it to one line: "Keep practicing, and after you've practiced long enough, you'll understand everything you need to know about it."