Sanctify yourself and you sanctify society. –St. Francis of Assisi
I am deeply frightened of the way things are going in this country: the hysterical tenor of the national discourse, the naked racism, the Islamophobia, the disappearance of the middle class, the impatience with reason, the intolerance of difference, the apparent invincibility of the plutocracy, the cynicism and the demagoguery and the appalling ignorance of American civics. With each day, America looks more like Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here.
I have done my best, as most of us have, to stand up for the America I know is possible, in the teeth of the rough beast it is on its way to becoming. The shadow of that beast-America terrifies me, trapping me in a spiral of angry, fearful, recriminating thoughts.
But there is something scarier on that cushion.
“This is the mermaid rock!” said my seven-year-old daughter to her sister and cousins during our vacation on Cape Cod. “Let’s play mermaids!”
“Yes,” said my five-year-old, “and I’m in love with one of the Coast Guard guys!”
Yes, it’s cute–for a moment–but it’s scary, too. My daughters are growing up so fast, and I worry about those innocent little girls who will come of age in a world so hypersexualized, so commodified, so materialistic and valueless and appearance-conscious that I despair of my ability to equip them to navigate it. Every day, my wife and I do our best to instill enough of a sense of self-worth in our girls to withstand the temptation to fill up the God-sized hole inside with sex, drugs and “retail therapy.” We don’t have a TV in the house, yet my five-year-old still sings Lady Gaga songs she hears on the radio at friends’ houses. And I live in fear of the day that she understands what she is singing.
But there is something scarier on that cushion.
I am on that cushion: all my selfishness, acquisitiveness, dissatisfaction, lust, anger, laziness, fear, envy, frustration, impatience and ill will. Failure is on that cushion–one more half hour of chasing after my thoughts until the bell upbraids me with the waste of time. Inadequacy and disappointment and the fear of wasting my life lie in wait on that cushion. Sometimes I would rather do anything than sit on that cushion.
Of course, I don’t really have time to meditate; I have my girls to take care of, Sunday school lessons to prepare so my church will not implode in the next generation; I have petitions to sign and demonstrations to attend, calls to make and blogs to read and articles to rebut. It would be irresponsible to carve that chunk of “me time” out of a day in which I have so many charges to keep.
Except that it wouldn’t.
“Acquire a spirit of peace,” said the Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov, “and thousands around you will be saved.” What a shockingly bold and simple prescription: meditate and pray, and who you are will make things better.
When Francis of Assisi persuaded the notorious robber “Il Lupo” to stop preying on the town of Gubbio and become a friar himself, he didn’t use legal or theological argument. The robber responded to who Francis was in God.
Jesus didn’t spell out to the fishermen and tax collectors of Galilee why they should drop everything and become his disciples; “Follow me,” he said–and they did, attracted by Jesus Himself.
Sri Ramakrishna didn’t say anything to his devotees that they couldn’t have read for themselves in the Scriptures; they came, attracted not by what Ramakrishna did or said, but by who he was, to hear the familiar things “from his own lips.”
Our best selves are the best gifts we can give to our families, our communities and our world. Our personal sadhanas are the best possible offerings we can make for the healing of the world. “The whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth.” (Romans 8:22.) Our soul work is Lamaze for rebirth.
When we are at our best, everything we do is more effective, even if all we do is to be. When we are at less than our best, nothing we do will ever be enough. And nothing we can say to people can be more effective than the example of being our full, whole authentic selves.
“The glory of God,” wrote St. Irenaeus of Lyon, “is the person fully alive.” The fully-aliveness we can touch through spiritual practice–when we stop running away and hiding from it–is more effective than all the sermons and dharma talks in the world.
“You,” said St. Francis, “may be all the Gospel your neighbor will ever read.”
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