The Day We All Became Contemplatives: A Theological Reflection on the Meaning of 9/11/01: Fifteen years … and Counting?
Because of what has happened fifteen years ago, we now realize that anything can happen. And yet… it still feels very unresolved and without a clear societal direction. Some of us still cling to old notions of safety and security, others are uncertain and yet willing to explore,and there are others among us who are seeking soulful solutions that can move us beyond sentiment or militancy, beyond political rhetoric, and on to how one’s faith in action can be a soulful response…
All across our nation, we will gather to remember- to offer each other a continuing sense of solace and reassurance, and yet, we now know, maybe more than ever before, that all the accustomed ,comfortable, taken for granted ways rest uneasy. We are uncertain in our own skins, and each of us can feel that our life and the lives of all those whom we love have become both more precious and more precarious.
We have come to realize that we are no longer comfortably insulated by wealth or safely isolated by oceans; we are no longer inviolate, protected by armies and supported by commerce- that our lifestyle, and the attitudes that have supported it, has now become the object of scorn and hate. As a result, it made more of us ask vital questions about how we live and what our values truly are.
Maybe, for the first time in our lives, we can understand the anxiety and dread that the average Palestinian or Jew or now a Syrian has lived with daily, and how they have lived for decades. As empathy is a great teacher, out of our suffering, an honest empathy can be born- one that asks us to commit to a higher way of humanity, a way of peace stronger and more resilient than any missiles and tanks could ever provide.
Many of us can easily recall a national tragedy, for it is easy to mourn the loss of 3000 lives, and to remember heroism, courage, bravery, and resolve. While all these noble ideals are noteworthy and important, under the lens of time, I feel we have to ask of ourselves about the extent of our personal awareness and to assess our national priorities in the light of compassionate ethics. These are heartfelt inquiries that ask us to look at the last ten years and ask ourselves how we have changed as a culture, and as individuals, because of the 9/11 experience.
However, I will not try to present a political diatribe, nor argue for some kind of necessary repentance on our national behalf. Neither will I will not try to justify our military actions in Afghanistan, or Iraq,etc., nor will I call to task our sense of domestic entitlement and our socioeconomic greed. These concerns are all too well documented, and are all too tragically well known.
Assessing or assigning blame serves no good ends, and even though we, as a nation, and as individuals have to accept a certain level of responsibility for our economic intrigues and political collisions, what I will reach for tonight is to try to answer what I see as the aching need within our humanity- our soul sickness- that ours is a need is to seek clarity and compassion, to achieve an empathy with worldwide suffering, and to admit to the many kinds of inner terrorism we all can face during our lives.
What this tragedy brings into focus for me is the fact of universal human terror we all have to live with or we all need to learn how best to release. This terror that I speak of tonight is not exclusively enacted by a few extreme Islamic militants. The true terror comes into our lives from how we have accepted toxic and terrorizing behavioral standards and how we have expected a lack of genuine ethics as being somehow normal! Daily, or so it seems, we passive absorb news headlines telling us of inhuman treatment, profound selfishness, prejudice, and other indignities and injustices… and then find ourselves saying that its to be expected!
We have to accept and we have to admit that for all the worldly sophistication, and advanced levels of education that our society has to offer, our human and heart centered needs have come up short: What the great spiritual traditions of humanity call us to do is to return to those universal values that support kindness and compassion. We, in our so called modern society, need to learn how to live with more faith, more hope, more love.
As a culture, we have been taught to seize control, to be self important, and to define our happiness and joy as being centered on materialistic goals. So we learn strategies, we learn to put on false faces, and then arrogantly go out to master the world … as if life, as if our very souls, are defined by such counterfeit success.
We try to give each other quick solace or some easy steps of reassurance with sound bytes of advice; we tell each other to just “get over it,” and other such glib ways that do not address the depth of ordinary pain and daily suffering that has been neatly concealed, packaged, and bottled up within us.
As Martin Luther King once put it, “[our chief concern is for social acceptance- that we readily choose convenience over conscience, as if ethics are defined by what most people will accept, and that morality is defined by the Gallop Polls.]”
Robert Kennedy then adds this insight on the nature of courage and change:
“[Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their [peers] the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence.
Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. Each time a person stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, (s)he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, … And those ripples can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.]”
As I see it, there is far too much cruelty, egotism, addiction, and corruption in our world to believe that we are immune to various kinds of interpersonal terrorism. And yet because, we do not want to judge others, or even hesitate to hold ourselves accountable, we permit these terrors to reign over us…
Terrors that are frankly worse than bombs or planes that can snuff out life, because we permit these terrors to insult our humanity and our dignity on a daily basis. There seems to be a resistance to accepting a more heartfelt responsibility for how we cooperate or conspire to shape and to determine our values and how those values will operate effectively in our world.
We appear to be afraid, because we do not realize the power and the grace we hold within us, and among us, if we were willing to respond bravely from our hearts, so that our actions can deeply affirm, understand and console all our sisters and brothers, be they in the Middle East or in this room… For you see, I believe that each of us has known some form of terror- each of us knows what it is like when we cannot sleep at night- fearing what might await us or possibly awaiting our children during the next day.
In our culture, and played out through our common humanity, we live alongside a daily litany of terrors; whether it is a life threatening illness, the fracturing effects of divorce, the loss of income, the feelings of uselessness, and various degrees of loneliness, rejection, insult, disappointments we have to endure, cope with, reconcile, and eventually seek to overcome… Yet, we also can know and affirm that when we listen to our hearts, when we reach inside for some answers, we can tap and then release the power which forms a new level of consciousness; a shared synergy can make our world more safe and more secure.
When asked how humanity will resolve the problems of war, and inhumanity, Albert Einstein remarked, “[There will be a need to raise human consciousness, for no problem in the history of humankind has ever been solved by the same level of consciousness that created it!”] Because of this, I can say that we are all in need of change; we are all in need of more faith, more hope, more love for ourselves and for our world.
The main terrors that afflict us, from which all other fearful terrors can come, can be seen broadly as Skepticism, Cynicism, and Nihilism. Each is a soul robbing attitude, a quality of pessimism, and each of these toxic outlooks is empty of any genuine heartfelt feelings, wisdom, or compassion; More importantly, I believe and affirm that each of these negative outlooks will yield to a higher consciousness based in those abiding virtues that are found in all the great spiritual and ethical traditions- faith, hope, and love.
First, skepticism, and by skepticism, I do not mean our need to keep an open mind, or to accept having doubts, or be willing to challenge the assumptions and conclusions of others. When I refer to skepticism, it is the chronic belief that there is nothing worthy or reliable enough to believe in- that nothing and no one is faithful, trustworthy, sincere enough and that the world is a cruel and selfish place.
We meet the challenge of looking at our world in this way by understanding that faith is both an action and an attitude.
Faith is a present tense action verb- one that accompanies all that we do, and that supports our confidence and that underlies any sense of trust. Faith is not some stagnant acceptance of a creed, or particular religious outlook. Instead, faith requires courage from us; the courage to be able to live in the questions that surround our current situation, or that currently plague our hearts. Faith, as a verb, encourages us to meet these outlooks with confidence- to be active in learning how to live creatively and not give in to any frozen insecurities or crippling fears.
The opposite of having faith is believing that you have to be in control. The absence of faith is one of the psychological rationales for why we seek to have power over others. In contrast, a real or genuine faith contains an equality of relationship; it is full sharing of authority and trust, for it is too restless to be lived without the inner authenticity that gives us an abiding sense of confidence… Faith frames our understanding of our own motives and decisions, and how well we sincerely choose to believe in ourselves and trust in the good that can be found in others.
Remember, at its core, pessimism is an personal injustice; it is a sin against ourselves. Nobody or no condition was ever made better by encouraging despair. Faith is necessary for healing such pessimism and restoring a sense of trust to ourselves and to how we act in our world.
The next terror of large proportions that we find among us is Cynicism. Cynicism is an attitude or outlook that states that nothing is good, fair or just, our culture is “on the take,” and that everyone has an ulterior motives. Cynicism promotes having a selfish or self serving design on others in their lives. When cynicism dominates in our thought or our relationships, the healing effect of being with connected to one another lessens, we wind up feeling drained, emptied by our caring, so that an unkind individual or narcissistic concern takes its place. Oncologist and family physician, Rachel Naomi Remen puts it this way: “we often shirk from creating a set of values that are truly life affirming. We forget that we need to live a life of integrity, to live closer to the truth of what and who you are… We can lose or gain ourselves by our choices”
The remedy for cynicism is hope; hope that instills genuine feelings of promise and possibility- that we are capable of living clearly- of living up to the ideals and behaviors we wish to see in others, or as Mohatma Gandhi put it, when responding to the challenge of hypocrisy: “We have to become the change we wish to see in others.” Having a sustaining sense of hope defeats our feelings of powerlessness. When we place hope in our hearts, we loosen the grip of fear and lessen the burdens of belief that say we are to only believe our limited life experiences, and that there is only a limited amount we will ever know, or ever be able to change about ourselves or our world.
Hope, as we know it from our Western Scriptures, gives us resilience and deepens our resolve. It builds character from suffering, and its insights do not disappoint us. (Romans 5) Hope is holding on to a positive perception; it is being open to inspiration and receptive to our highest aspirations. Hope believes; it helps us to muster a willingness to work for a new or renewed vision of ourselves, and gives us a foundation for new, positive possibilities of personal change and social transformation. When we hold on to hope, we can capture or recover the feelings that can make life whole, healthy and worthwhile.
The last, and maybe the most difficult terror to overcome is Nihilism. Nihilism is that nagging sense of the nothingness of life- that it has or holds no meaning, no purpose. That life is chaotic and cold- and our souls are chilled at the thought of feeling useless, cut off, out of touch; To be without a sense of being valuable to ourselves or anyone else.
I feel that when we are the most nihilistic, when we are looking straight into the Abyss; when we are facing our ultimate moments of life or death… There… There in the depth of our aloneness and despair we are given a choice of connection or annihilation. When we desperately dare to reach out, and by some holy grace, some divine synchronicity, there will be a hand and a heart, who will hold you…
I feel that our modern spiritual crisis deals less with the nature of God, than it does with our human capacity and our personal willingness to form meaningful relationships. How we access or embrace God, is also how we embrace our deep Self, and it influences how well we will accept and embrace one another. ….
As one former colleague Arnold Westwood, put it, “[our religion is found in our relationships. We are defined by the quality, the sincerity and the depth of our relationships, and through them we come to know and experience the good, we come to know God”]
So, most poignantly, most completely, to end our feelings of nihilism, we live in the need of more love…. And what could be said of its truth and power? As we have all read, ” Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Love, as I know it, is the only truly transformative power that is; Love cancels fear, and overcomes hate; it is the guiding and sustaining principle behind all blessing, all grace. When love is present, then all the possibilities of growth, change, healing, and reconciliation are open to you…. And are open to our world.
I will close my remarks tonight with the words of James Baldwin, author, activist, who makes this observation- He said: “The inability to love is the central problem, because that inability masks a certain terror- the terror of being touched. And if you can’t be touched, you can’t be changed. And if you cannot be changed, you can’t be alive.”
This evening, I ask that when you leave, that you hold your hearts open to this touch, this ability to change, and personally embrace the renewed promise of having more faith, hope, and love in your lives. I ask you to claim these gifts, and then go out and become an embodied blessing in this world of hurt, and to offer comfort, healing, and peace to one another. AMEN … SO BE IT WITH YOU ALL !
Post Note; I have resources and readings from this service and on expanded themes… Please see them posted on this website…