January 28, 2011

Bert the Chimney Sweep (and Four Other People More Spiritually Advanced than Me.)

You cannot serve both God and money. ­­–Jesus[i]

There was a time when I might have watched Mary Poppins and not noticed how much more enlightened Bert the Chimney Sweep was than I am. Consider his conversation with little Jane Banks about her money-obsessed, workaholic banker father:


You know, begging your pardon, but the one my heart goes out to is your father. There he is in that cold, heartless bank day after day, hemmed in by mounds of cold, heartless money. I don’t like to see any living thing caged up.


Father in a cage?


They makes cages in all sizes and shapes, you know. Bank-shaped some of ’em, carpets and all.

While I stew in secret macho shame about the fact that my wife makes all the money in our family, Bert knows the value of freedom well enough to be detached from money-based models of success. While I spend much of my time being miserable about all I haven’t accomplished in the world, Bert–a sidewalk-chalker one day, a one-man-band another, and a chimney sweep in between–is free from identification with work and the outcomes of work. He is, as Jesus put it, “in the world, but not of it.”[ii] And he is full of compassion, which he shares freely and practically. Bert is one of a great many people I’ve noticed who are, in one or more ways, more enlightened than I am.

Enlightenment, says Sally Kempton, is “a fine word as long as we don’t think of it as a static, final state that we ‘attain’ and don’t move from, but as way of describing certain evolved stages of the human condition.”  This is how I see it, too, and I would add that people’s various spiritual faculties develop at different rates.

I consider myself primarily a jnana yogi, which is to say that I am bookish and know a lot of stuff.  But I live in my head more than I’d like. Others are primarily bhaktis, people with a palpable love for God and who, while they may not be able to articulate their experiences or beliefs, allow that love to spill over into their human relationships. Others are advanced meditators with a great deal of control over their thought life, while others, having attained detachment from outcomes, are in control of their emotional responses to things. And I believe this is all good–that we are all members of the great body of humanity. Just as  “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you,’ and the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you,’”[iii] we need each other.

So here are only a few of the great many people who seem to me to be, at least at some times and in some areas, farther along the path than I am.

My Daughter, Clare

I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  –Jesus[iv]

While driving my daughter Clare to a birthday party a couple years ago, I tried to explain to her why some of the drivers around us were so aggressive and unsafe.  “Sometimes the world isn’t a very nice place,” I told her. After a long silence, she said,

But Daddy, the world is still very pretty.

Caught completely off guard, I had to think about that for a moment. All I ever seem to see in the world is how it is not delivering up to me what I want.  How, I wondered, has my daughter acquired this wisdom that I have not? How can a person only two years out of diapers, who has never read Max Ehrman’s Desiderata, have nevertheless figured out that “With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world”?

Of course, I didn’t say any of those things. What I said was:

Yes it is, honeybun; it absolutely is.

My Father

Not knowing how near the truth is, we seek it far away–what a pity! We are like one who in the midst of water cries out in thirst so piteously. We are like the son of a rich man who wandered away among the poor. –Hakuin

My Dad never went to church with us when I was a kid.  Taken as a child to a Pentecostal snake-handling church in his native West Virginia mountains, he was sufficiently traumatized that he put off baptism until he was fifty-five. But unlike his more explicitly religious wife and son, he never had any trouble going to sleep at night.  While my mom and I lay in our beds at the mercy of our monkey-minds, my Dad was

a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity…washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him.[v]

In his quiet, unassuming, utterly woo-woo-free way, my Dad lives mindfully in the moment.

I didn’t as a kid–and as for now, well, “how rare the moment, and how brief its duration.”[vi] I didn’t like the present, and I had plans to make regarding my future liberation and world conquest.

I’m not sure where I got the idea that something in my head was going to make me happier than the world in which I was actually situated, but I was always trying to live there in my head, irrespective of whatever was supposed to be going on here in my life.  My Dad frequently nagged me to “think about what you’re doing, son.” Are you kidding, I thought?  I’m raking leaves, mowing the lawn—my mind definitely has loftier things than to dwell on than what I’m doing!

So I raked leaves badly, and failed to realize the ambitious dreams in my head. Worst of all, I missed the opportunity to profit early from what was, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, potent spiritual teaching. Remembering how pedestrian I thought my father at the time, I shudder at the thought of how my children will respond to me in a few short years–even if I should ever manage to nag them about anything useful and important, as opposed to the hang-up-your-coat-on-a-hook-not-the-floor stuff I generally nag them about.

Sally Wogler

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. –Paul of Tarsus[vii]

I lived for a time in Gordonville, Pennsylvania, in the heart of Lancaster County’s “Amish Country.” Buggies clip-clopped past the house all day and the convenience stores had hitching posts.

Our neighbors were a nonagenarian Amish couple from Canada who had come to Pennsylvania to retire. One spring, ninety-two-year-old Sally fell and broke her hip.  When, upon her return from the hospital two weeks later, I went to visit her, I was amazed to see her sitting up on her front porch in a wheelchair.

“It’ll be another two weeks yet before I can use the walker,” she said in an uncomplaining, matter-of-fact way.

Two weeks? I thought; an awful lot of ninety-two-year-old people who fall down and break a hip die! Her serenity amazed me no less than her toughness–as though life would really have to do a lot worse than that if it wanted to rattle Sally Wogler.

Unless they were trying to sell me pies or produce at the farmer’s market, the young Amish women I encountered generally scuttled past me with lowered eyes, never speaking to me unless absolutely necessary, as though the idea of contact with me were somehow threatening. But the old Amish women have a quality of serene fearlessness, as though a whole lifetime of continuous hard work in an atmosphere permeated by rigorous faith had left them beyond being made uneasy by the likes of me. “In God I trust,” they seem to say with the Psalmist, “and will not be afraid, for what can mortals do to me?”[viii] This is the quality, at once surrendered and conquering, that I saw in my neighbor.

The Soup Kitchen Prayer Leader

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. –Jesus[ix]

Somehow, my family found ourselves to be the only thing standing between a homeless shelter and a Taiwanese immigrant, her two-year-old daughter and her one-week-old son.  We didn’t really know these people, and we briefly wished we had a carriage house on our property like so many of the big homes on the more fashionable side of Germantown Avenue. But knowing that Isaiah didn’t say to “take the homeless poor into your carriage house,” we opened our doors to them.

There are a lot of stories in which someone performs a charitable act, and later learns that the beneficiary was Jesus in disguise. St. Christopher carrying the pilgrim across the river, St. Francis kissing the leper and giving him money, St. Martin sharing his cloak with the freezing beggar–all received, legend has it, confirmation that what they had done to “the least of these,” they had done to God.

I won’t lie to you: I could have used one of those visions during our adventure in hospitality. A bunch of times. But what kept me going–besides the satisfaction of helping, and the formative value of having our children help us help–was the knowledge that we are called upon not only to minister to Jesus, but also as Jesus. We may be drafted to be Jesus at any time. As poet Andrew Hudgins put it, Jesus is just

…someone walking through his life—or hers—
Until God whispers, It’s you. And God’s ignored…
Or does God simply choose us all?

I knew of a woman at one of the larger Christian social service agencies in the Washington, DC area. A former homeless beneficiary of the community’s meal program, she had managed to find a home and job, and returned to the soup kitchen as a worker. Each day, before the doors opened, she led the community in prayer, beginning with these words:

Lord, we know You’re coming through that line today; help us to treat You right.

When I am able to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,”[xi]–not simply as the recipients of my charity but as an opportunity to be Jesus to someone who is, in turn, Jesus to me–when I am really capable of nishkama karma­–then I will know that I have truly made some measurable progress in awakening.  I will know that I have “run with patience the race set before me”[xii] when I am finally able to see in other people neither the means of, nor hindrances to the fulfillment of my own desires, but the Image of the Invisible God.[xiii]

[i] Luke 16:13,  Matthew 6:24

[ii] See John 17: 14-16

[iii] 1 Corinthians 12:21

[iv] Matthew 18:3

[v] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

[vi] St. John of the Cross

[vii] 2 Timothy 4:7

[viii] Psalm 56:10

[ix] Matthew 25:40

[x] Hudgins, Andrew. “Crucifixion—Montgomery, Alabama.” Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poetry.  David Impastato, Editor.  Oxford University Press, 1996. (8)

[xi] Baptismal vows, Book of Common Prayer (1979)

[xii] See Hebrews 12:1

[xiii] Colossians 1:15

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