Posts Tagged ‘Evensong’

Opening Words

Monday, May 14th, 2018

Big River Meteor

Big River Meteor photo by Todd

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” Carl Jung

I like to write letters to friends and to artists and writers and movie directors I admire. Sometimes my friends will send me letters, but the artists and writers and movie directors I write to very rarely answer my letters, though until twenty years ago if the admired person was British, Australian, or from New Zealand, no matter how famous, he or she always wrote back—but not anymore.

For many years, before there was email and texting and tweeting, I sent off several letters every week; and almost every day in those halcyon days of postal abundance, the postal service agent would bring me letters from friends. On my computer I have a file entitled Letter Head Quotes. In this file are pages topped with a quote I especially like, and I will either type a letter to someone on one of those pages, or print out the page and use the empty space below the quote to write a letter by hand.

Here are some of my favorite letterhead quotes and a few thoughts about them.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own royal pedigree. Your priestly identity as one who blesses and is blessed in return. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.”  Alan Jones

Alan Jones is an Episcopal priest who was the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco from 1985 until 2009. When I lived in Berkeley from 1995 to 2006, I would attend Evensong on Thursday evening at Grace Cathedral twice a month. I’d take BART from the North Berkeley station, get off at Montgomery Street, hike up the hill to the cathedral, walk the labyrinth adjacent to the cathedral, enter the cavernous church, listen to the Boy’s and Men’s choirs sing gorgeous unintelligible hymns accompanied by a genius organist, and open my heart and mind to Alan’s spontaneous prayer, which always concluded Evensong.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.

This quote from Winnie the Pooh is especially dear to me, literally dear, because when I was creating a book of my writing exercises The Writer’s Path with Mindy Toomay, I really wanted to use this quote in the book, and our publisher, 10-Speed before they were eaten by Random House, informed us that Disney, who now owns all things Pooh, was demanding five hundred dollars for the use of those few lines. 10-Speed was not about to cough up five hundred cents for our book, let alone five hundred dollars, so I coughed up the money, which amounted to ten per cent of my advance for the book; and I have never regretted the expenditure.

If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it;

If I be in a state of Grace, I pray God keep me so.” Jean D’Arc

I first read this quote in Mark Twain’s novel Joan of Arc. I’ve read everything Twain wrote, and though I consider The Prince and the Pauper his finest novel, Twain considered Joan of Arc his greatest work. He spent two years in France meticulously researching his book, and he studied French for several years so he could read the transcripts of Joan’s trial in the original French with the aid of able translators. Despite Twain’s immense fame, no publisher would publish the book, so Twain published the fascinating work himself.

This quote, which comes from the transcript of Joan’s trial, speaks of a desire to be in a state of grace without needing to know whether one is in such a state. In that sense, the sentiment, when separated from the context of Joan’s trial, echoes the Buddha extolling the virtue of Not Knowing, of Beginner’s Mind—an innocent acceptance and appreciation of whatever we are experiencing.

In the context of Joan’s trial, these words are a testament to her astonishing genius, for this simple reply effectively defeated her brutal prosecutor and proved the most brilliant minds in the Catholic Church incapable of convicting her of heresy. Thus stymied, those hideous men tortured her until they imagined her anguished cries to be an admission of heresy—after which they quickly burned her at the stake.

But before they tortured her and killed her, they laid a pernicious intellectual trap for her. There was an arcane law of the Catholic Church stating that anyone claiming to be in a state of grace, or claiming not to be in a state of grace, was a heretic. So if Joan could be tricked into saying, or even implying, she believed she was or was not in a state of grace, she would be proved a heretic. Having been deprived of sleep and sufficient food for several weeks, having stood through weeks of trial in the face of legions of ghoulish priests intent on killing her, Joan, nineteen, illiterate, and knowing nothing of the complicated laws of the church was asked by the prosecutor, “Do you believe you are in a state of grace?”

As Twain describes the scene, the devious prosecutor asks this question almost as an afterthought at the end of a grueling day of interrogation. Joan gathers herself, awaits guidance from her angelic allies, and replies with quiet eloquence, “If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it. If I be in a state of Grace, I pray God keep me so.”

In a more modern context, but in a similarly metaphysical vein, the following quote from Buckminster Fuller is a succinct description of how I believe the universe operates. I assumed that nature would “evaluate” my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained. 

Having shared this quote with many people, I can report that artists and poets and people who have lived unusual lives universally agree that this is how the universe operates, while everybody else says Bucky’s idea is hokum.

Here is one of my favorite Philip Whalen poems.

HOW MANY IS REAL

Whether we intended it or liked it or wanted it

We are part of a circle that stands beyond life and death

Happening whether we will or no

We can’t break it, we are seldom aware of it

And it looks clearest to people beyond its edge.

They are included in it

Whether or not they know

 

Here’s To You

Monday, December 26th, 2016

You You

You You by Todd

“We have not all had the good fortune to be ladies. We have not all been generals, or poets, or statesmen; but when the toast works down to the babies, we stand on common ground.” Mark Twain

I would like to propose a toast to the coming year, 2017. May this be a good year for you and your loved ones, and for your neighborhood, your community, and the world. May this be the year we start to turn things around as a species living on a planet of finite resources and a biosphere overtaxed by greenhouse gases.

It seems to me that sharing is the not-so-secret key to solving many of our problems, both as individuals and as a society—not just sharing the wealth and ride-sharing, but sharing our ideas and feelings with each other.

I was in the grocery store the other day and looked around at my fellow shoppers, and I realized we were all kind of ignoring each other, not in a malicious way, but in the way that has become the habit of people in our society. Even when I smiled at people, most of them were unaware I was looking at them, so they didn’t see the smile I was giving them.

I’m not suggesting you start going around smiling at everyone, unless you want to. I am suggesting that in 2017 we might try to be a little more aware of other people in our lives, people other than our friends and family—just random other people. I have no hard facts to back this up, but I have the feeling that our unawareness of each other is one of the sources of unhappiness in our society—a general sense of disconnect from each other and a disconnect from the totality of our each-otherness.

Now and then I will strike up a conversation with someone shopping near me. A few days ago in the produce aisle, I said to the man hunting vegetables a few feet from me, “Isn’t the red leaf lettuce spectacular right now?”

The man looked at me, and not recognizing me as someone he knew, he frowned. Then he looked at the red leaf lettuce and said tentatively, “Yes, that is some fine looking lettuce.”

“I just had to exclaim,” I said, laughing.

“I know what you mean,” he said, smiling.

Then we went our separate ways. Nothing profound. But I felt good about connecting with him. I liked that we got to exchange smiles. Some minutes later, when I was in the checkout line, I saw the man leaving the market, and he saw me seeing him leaving, and he raised his hand in farewell and I raised mine.

“Always remember there are two types of people in the world. Those who come into a room and say, ‘Well, here I am!’ and those who come in and say, ‘Ah, there you are!’” Frederick L. Collins

I had a friend who ended his answering machine message with, “And remember…be good to yourself.” The first few times I heard his message, I winced at what I took to be excessive schmaltz, but then at some point I stopped wincing at his message and allowed myself to think about what he meant. I came to realize that I was not often good to myself, and that I frequently beat myself up for no good reason. I understood his message as, “Stop treating yourself poorly. You’re a good person. Open up to that idea and see what happens.”

The Buddhist practice of sending thoughts of loving kindness to others requires the sender to first get comfortable sending those loving thoughts to one’s self. When I first undertook this practice, I found it difficult to say, “May I be loved. May I be supported. May my suffering be at end.” I felt I was being greedy and selfish to ask for these things for me.

Why did I need to get comfortable sending myself loving thoughts before I sent loving thoughts to others? I came to understand that the practice was preparing me to be a conduit for sending love. If the conduit is clogged with self-recrimination and fear of being loved and supported, my sending loving kindness to others will be freighted with those fears.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your identity as one who blesses and is blessed in return. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.”  Alan Jones

When I lived in the Berkeley, I would go to Evensong at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco a couple times a month to hear the fabulous boys’ and men’s choirs accompanied by the grand cathedral organ. At the end of Evensong, Alan Jones, the Dean of the Episcopal, would make a brief prayer urging us to open our minds and hearts to the miracles in our lives, and to be merciful to those less fortunate than we.

I was always touched and empowered by the singing and Alan’s words, and I would walk out into the night feeling great tenderness for my fellow humans. My walk down the hill to Market Street was always a processional full of wonder, the ride home on BART enjoyable, the company of my fellow humans at least fascinating and often a pleasure.

Yes, our society and our government are in big trouble, and our precious planet is in even bigger trouble. But we are not powerless. We can be kind to each other and supportive of each other, and we can make a positive difference, each of us, every day, somehow or other.

Here’s to you. Happy New Year!