03 October 2014

Calling Down the Echoes

[The title of this blog post is inspired by the University of Notre Dame Victory March (fight song).  We lived in South Bend, IN for eleven years, and this song became very well known...especially in football season.  The second line of the second stanza reads, "Wake up the echoes cheering her name."  This blog is a reflection from a morning meditation wherein the words, "Call down the Echoes" came to me with two particular images.  Later, the unmistakable Victory March tune began in my head.  So, I need to give credit where it is due.]

Probably no one who reads this would deny that we spend a lot of our awake time reflecting on past events, personal encounters or historic moments that have left deep impressions.  It is safe to say that we are shaped, in large measure, by what we have experienced.  Learning is a process of taking in information, processing it, storing it and utilizing it in seemingly countless ways.  We are a product of the processes of experience, learning, cognitive associations and the stories we have assembled to keep all of that alive in our current moment.  

What drives us somewhat crazy, as we grow older, is the haziness of some of those memories and experiences.  The temptation (and perhaps tendency) is to find a cognitive thread of memory and build a story that seems plausible...or more satisfying...to our current self-image.  It's something like a "Walter Mitty Complex."  It is the secret life we always wished we had after having experienced what we really had and either lost some of the detailed memory of what we had or simply abandoning it in favor of our enhanced creation.  No, it would not be considered so much a lie (falsehood) but a work of subconscious ego wanting us to feel good about ourselves.  The pathology that sometimes creates an entirely new persona is called "Delusional Reality."  This is not what I am talking about here.

As I approach age 64, I am experiencing some interesting internal phenomena.  I retired from the active work as a parish priest in the Episcopal Church 3 years, 3 months ago.  After 33 years of total engagement in congregational development and immersion in the liturgical cycles of the Church, I was ready for a change...and a rest.  As I approached the third anniversary of retirement, I was asked to consider taking on an assignment as a part-time Priest-in-Charge of a small congregation.  This designation would not affect my status as a retired priest, because the hours involved would be kept at a level that would not change the status.  There would be no stipendiary income.  It would not require me to "run" a congregational system in the same manner a parish Rector functions in a congregation.  The shift this caused me internally was not what I expected.

I began waking up very early in the morning....3:00am early.  I would wake up with a jolt from a shot of adrenalin powered by either panic, anxiety or a combination in some form.  It was just small stuff.  However, in the haze of being only half awake, that stuff seemed huge...almost insurmountable.  Try as I might, there would be no going back to sleep.  Part of the imagery had to do with the possibilities attached to being back in a parochial status.  I knew the knife-edge I lived on for all those years and the intense stresses of life in an often convoluted parochial environment.  The Church is a truly complex entity and almost never the spiritual panacea that one might imagine.  It is often the most secular and conflicted environment on the planet.  Why?  At the risk of oversimplification, the human ego regularly masks itself as a spiritually enlightened entity (which it is not).  The confusion of spirituality and ego-driven imagery can create some very disturbing and convoluted situations.  These stresses had begun to take their toll on my health, and I have had a good year leading up to this call for me to do this work.  I was suddenly afraid.  Damn!  I am not a fearful person by nature.

After a month of internal debate and struggle, I agreed to take this assignment.  The moment I said "yes" there was a sense of peace about it.  So, maybe I was finished with the very early morning panic attacks.  Nope....not so much.

I have now been doing the work of Priest-in-Charge for exactly three months (I began on 1 July).  Even after making the decision and adjusting my lifestyle to meet the shift in status, I have continued to wake up at around 4:00am (yep, "peace" bought me an hour more sleep each night).  However, I was no longer in a place of panic.  I would simply wake up and begin seeing images and vignettes of people, places and events from early childhood onward into almost the present.  I would feel a range of emotions:  grieving losses, remorse at mistakes made or people hurt, sadness at losing the wonderful or joy-filled moments, deep grief at losing those places of innocence and being relatively care-free, anxiety at things that were left "unfinished" or "incomplete."  That is just some of the range.

Something else began to creep into this panoply of what seemed to be life review.  I began to realize that there is far less time in front of me than is now behind me.  I have always lived with the reality of death.  I have felt close to it a couple of times...close enough to appreciate the fragility of life.  Over the past few years, my spirituality has shifted into a deeper place.  I am generally more contemplative and reflective.  I have been able, at times, to suspend ego and experience the deeper Self that is often defined as "soul."  I have truly experienced what Jesus called, "the Kingdom is at hand."  That sentence, in its original language format, is translated, "the Kingdom is as close as your touch....you can palpate it."  And, it has palpated me.  I am certain that reality is much, much bigger than my senses can experience.  So why the anxiety about death?

One word:  Attachment.

I love my wife very much indeed.  I love my daughters deeply...and my son-in-law...and my new grandson...and my dear friends...and the Lakota people...and the high plains...and the place we now live...and those people and things that have made me who I am.  

Early this morning (actually 4:30am...a whole 30 minutes more sleep than usual....hot damn!) I arose and did what I do to shake off the anxiety material:  wash my face, head downstairs with our dog padding close at my heels, start the coffee, take our dog for her first trip outside, empty the dishwasher, check my fasting blood-sugar level, drink a large glass of water, grab a cup of coffee and settle into one of two places:  the chair in our reading/prayer area or the chair on the lanai.  Today, I was on the lanai by 4:50am (I am fairly fast and efficient at the process laid out above).

As my primary mantra quietly repeated itself in my head, I could feel myself letting go and entering that "buzzy" realm of deeper consciousness.  {note:  I have tinnitus...a condition of ringing in the ears...primarily my left ear...on reflection, when that "disappears" I am below the sensate level of consciousness}  There came two images that seemed to float like clouds.  One was in the shape of an eagle....a representation of what I had actually experienced at the grave of Red Cloud during my sabbatical in 2008.  There was a man in khaki pants and a blue work shirt standing to my side asking if I needed something.  My response was something like, "affirmation."  His response to me, "you have always had that...keep going."

At some point, another image came into focus.  It was simply a grassy area with trees and the quick entry and exit of a number of folks...all familiar to me and each with some word of assurance.  These were voices from the past but seemed to be located very much in the present and leaning me forward.  It is a hard experience to describe.  The voices were like a series of echoes.  After this, I "surfaced" to find myself sitting upright in the chair, hands still in my lap, the tinnitus ringing away in its usual manner, and the new day's dawning now illuminating the outdoor surroundings.  I could hear my wife in the kitchen...arisen from her sleep and making her first cup of coffee.  

I think, in our dark places of semi-consciousness, our mind wants to rehearse where we have been and what have done...or not done...as a means by which we remain attached to what we have come to define as reality.   As we grow older, we grieve the loss of youth and the things that defined those years.  The shift to this stage of life is hard, so we begin telling stories of "back when I was....."(put the age, place, job, accomplishment, etc in here).  It is here that wisdom needs to take a prime place.  Brother Mark Brown, SSJE, says it well:
     "Wisdom seeks truth. Wisdom seeks life. Wisdom seeks light. And, surely, wisdom seeks love.       Wherever these things are to be found. Maybe in church. Maybe in the lab or the museum or         the concert hall or on a stage or screen. Maybe in our relationships. Perhaps wisdom is not so       much a particular thing or a particular understanding of things, and more an attitude, more a           disposition of expansiveness."
[SSJE:  Society of St. John the Evangelist, a monastic order of the Episcopal Church whose Mother House is in Cambridge, MA]
Wisdom isn't how much we know.  It is the deep inner being that gathers both physical and spiritual reality into a synthesis of being.  It is a way of being more than a way of doing.  In calling down the echoes of experience, we acknowledge that we are humans who have been caste into a life that is at the same time imminent and transcendent.  It is a place into which we wake up, rather than strive toward.  
I now know that when I finish waking up in the midst of life reviews and anxiety about seemingly minute tasks I will have come to that place of being at peace with the eternal Now.  It is what we truly have.  It is always with us.  The echoes are there to lean us into the fullness of Now.
Love and Blessings,