Opening Doors

Thomas Merton related that a Tibet monk is to have replied to the question about how they train and form their novices in contemplative prayer that for the first year they are taught how to close doors. Those 365 days seemed a long time to learn all about closing doors, writes Larry Gillick this week.

Contemplative prayer. I continue to read this month that story of Abraham and Isaac. Over and over. The same biblical account that is read at the start of the Jewish High Holy Days. Year in and year out. As God wanted a stake in His Chosen People, in the human race, so Jews needed a stake in the world and all of its problems.

Wanting a stake. Have you ever had to tell a girl you loved her? And in a case when there was a darn good chance she did not believe you. And to tell a lover like God that you loved Him? I always expected the same response. From God. From the girl. And if by some miracle you feel like you have developed some knowledge of this God, or the girl…well, I still did not feel real confident in my profession of love. I somehow always feel like I have fallen short. In what I have done and what I should have done. That was the human condition. That was the male condition in any relationship. To feel you have come up short. And say some pretty dumb things.

When there was pain in sacrifice. Made in seeking a stake in the world, through a girl. The girl seemed more interested in seeing something. Maybe with little real understanding how hard the business world was. The hours that went into buying a diamond. And having to listen to all of her small complaints?

What a struggle of every young guy, trying to communicate something. The ongoing struggle to profess an authentic love. And then to have your credibility judged.

Those professions of love. Like the struggle of every young guy, trying to communicate something, God seemed to have His own doubts. It seemed part of the struggle every person, guys from Mars any way, has with belief in each other. Doubts about the love professed.

Those professions of love at the end of life, to God, to loved ones. Abraham, the farmer. The nomadic farmer. In the pain of old age. Approaching a major sacrifice. If the theme of my life, like Abraham’s life, was all along all about passing on a way of life. In sacrifice. The ultimate sacrifice. The little real notice of sacrifice along the way…but one ultimate sacrifice like the great fireworks display, like a diamond, as the ultimate profession of love. In appreciation for the revelations of the mystery, about the unseen. Over what seemed to be, in my perspective, the Truth. The little really noticed mystery. By the secular world.

Doors. Opening and closing doors for contemplative prayer. For these times. Opening and closing doors to focus on meaning in our lives, With training to form the next generation in contemplative prayer “With a little more attentiveness to what we are shutting in and shutting out…a little more open to surprises and also the unsurprising,” writes Lary Gillick.

Of the two parts of being a rabbi, a Tibet monk, or a priest, there was the caring and comforting people, and shaking them up and moving them to another place. The prophet role. When the experience of young people form their ideas. In schools where they share experiences with strangers and become bound. When those ideas which nourish then sustain an identity.

So what had I set out to say in this piece of art called life? Who was going to try to interpret my work of art? How would I be judged?

Rabbi Max Shapiro, the senior rabbi from 1963 through 1985 at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, the 10th largest Reform congregation in the world who, within as well as outside his congregation, challenged people to fight anti-Semitism, racism and poverty, died on October 16, 2009 at his Minnetonka home. The obituary of Max Shapiro states that he was a lifelong member of the NAACP, and he served on a city civil rights council and the Urban Coalition. Under his leadership, the social action committee at Temple Israel sent a delegate to walk with Martin Luther King, Jr., resolved not to trade with any business with discriminatory hiring practices, and became the first in the area to teach a black history course. In a 1964 sermon, he explained his philosophy of religion and civic duty, of staking a claim in a city through professions of love: “It is not enough for us to applaud or even support civil rights legislation. Judaism instructs us to do more. It tells us to take the needy into our employ! It tells us to train him for a job! … It is a religious duty! And it is imperative! For no community, no city, no nation can long endure so divided — half affluent, half despairing.”

Those professions of love. So who was worthy of this inheritance? Of his religious tradition? In old age. Of those living in the harsh godless profane pagan world? In the present moment? With different degrees of hunger, in this secular world?

The Akedah story. Sacrifice. God. A spouse. And feeling so unworthy.

When life was a profession of love? Wanting a stake. To feel needed. Trying to tell God you loved Him? That feeling, somehow always that feeling, like I have fallen short. In what was the human condition. Feeling no confidence in a profession of love through your spouse and kids. That was the male condition in any relationship. The relationship. Wanting a stake in someone. Over and over trying to say in a new way, with some degree of confidence about my own profession of love, after contemplation, what exactly this love was. The relationship chosen, with some consequential movement in the story. The ONE relationship chosen. That same accounting, year in and year out. On anniversaries. On Valentine’s Day. At year’s end. I expect that even at an old age, there was a good chance, a darn good chance, if life was a profession of love that Abraham did not believe God believed him. Even after all the things that they had shared. To feel you have come up short. On the anniversary date, with those performance reviews. Having done some pretty dumb things. Was the Akedah story really about Abraham’s feeling of always feeling unworthy? In the Akedah story.

When life was a profession of God’s love? So who was worthy of this inheritance? When asked to sacrifice Sarah’s son, in the Akedah story, was the actual mystery about Abraham in a sense a Last Judgment scene? In the Akedah story was Abraham really asking God “Why did I have all this? And why was I losing it?” It was the “Why me?” question. Had he really been “chosen?” Was Abraham really asking God in the Akedah if he really had all along been chosen? By asking him to sacrifice the son of the women he most truly loved? Was this question challenging the meaning of his life—the meaning of his love—or challenging God for all that He had given to him? And had slowly been taking away? Slowly taking away all of these blessings—this was a profession of God’s love?

The Akedah story. Challenging the depth of belief? With the pain of old age, did God truly love Abraham? Was this Abraham challenging the meaning of his life, challenging God through the sacrifice of an animal, for all that He had given to him? Professions of love once made, in seeking a stake in the world, through the blood of the best animal. Professions of love now made through the sacrifice of the son of a woman he most loved? Or was the actual mystery in this Akedah story about God challenging Abraham about the depth of belief?

Abraham. All that time spent. Reflecting on the meaning of making some kind of an offering to God, when your relationships, based so much in sacrifice, with God, with your lover, with your kin, involved not only blood, but these strange profession of love. Professions made in seeking a stake in the world, through a woman. When the woman, the son, seemed more interested in seeing something—than hearing something. About belief.

Had Abraham in the first place ever been worthy? As Isaac might have finally wondered, might have asked his father about himself. The same question. And with the strange professions of love by Abraham, Isaac might have finally wondered —about his father’s witness or his own, in this Akedah story— ‘Who in the name of God do you think you are?’

These strange professions of love. Over and over. I continue to read the same biblical accounts. Over and over. Religion was not just a recognition of, an awareness, about God, man, woman, and the universe. It was about everything. Religion was about bindings. It was more about action than words. It was about ritual. And as was said of Rabbi Max Shapiro, in passing on a way of life, “He created the most wonderful community.”

Those courtships. Training and forming their Tibet novices in contemplative prayer, with those 365 days spent learning all about closing doors. Over and over. But wanting a stake in the outside world. Contemplative prayer, and looking for meaning, in the age old stories. Those strange professions of love at the end of life. To God, to loved ones. As God wanted a stake in His Chosen People. Being moved towards opening doors. Being moved to sacrifice. And trying to work on becoming more worthy. In sacrifice. In kinship to the God, and passing on that kinship. In these strange professions of love. By these religious nuts. Let loose once again in the outside world.

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