Your Membership Card for the Spiritual Gymnasium

            Speaking at the Lobero Theater fifteen years ago was the great scholar of world religion, Huston Smith. Almost 90 years old, he had difficulty walking on stage. 

Once he reached the lectern and stabilized himself, he looked out at the audience, smiled, and said, “I’m going to make five statements tonight that I think you will disagree with.”  People shifted a bit in their seats. 

There’s no such thing as progress” was one of them. 

            He acknowledged that, of course, there have been significant improvements in our lives over the centuries.  Plumbing, for instance. Or scientific advances in many fields, including those that have improved health care, eliminated many deadly diseases, and reduced mortality rates.  Not many of us would argue with that.

            There’s been some progress in human rights, particularly regarding race and the status of women.

            But with all our material advances, have we resolved the problems that create human suffering?

            He finished by saying:

            “If you go through life feeling you must solve the problems facing humanity before you die, you are going to come to the end frustrated and discouraged.  But if instead you see life as a spiritual gymnasium – a place designed to learn timeless truths – you will find it’s perfectly equipped.”

In my twenties I realized how deeply embedded the illusion of progress is in our society – that every generation will make things “better.”   Clearly there’s been great material advances.  But would we say there has been “progress” in the arts? Has anyone “improved” on Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis, the Beatles, Van Gogh, Aretha, Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Marley?  New artists come along and delight us with their creativity, but that’s not “progress,” that’s just new expressions.  There is a timelessness to great art that is very different from a new washing machine model or a television with higher resolution.

            The same can be said about great spiritual teachings.  New insights and interpretations emerge, but core teachings endure. The importance of awe, wonder and gratitude.  The call to love and serve your neighbor and guard the inherent dignity of others.  To participate in a caring community. To treat the earth as a sacred gift.  These values are ageless, and life offers us endless opportunities to practice them.

I find this helpful to remember when events challenge my assumptions of how we should be able to “fix” things.

            When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, many of us thought America might be entering a “post-racial” America.  We were wrong.

            Until the 2020 election, we took it for granted that a president who had clearly lost an election would never call it a “big lie” and encourage a violent attack on the Capitol. We were mistaken.

            Europe has  not seen large-scale armed conflict in 77 years and it seemed we were beyond such events. But Russia attacked Ukraine in February and millions of people have become refugees.

            Ten years ago, after the Sandy Hook shootings, many Americans were determined to do whatever it would take to prevent further tragedies.  Now we have this unfathomable event in Texas just days after the shootings in Buffalo.

            Human behavior, it seems, is not as easy to upgrade as a cell phone.

            But do we give up and disengage?  Absolutely not.

            First, we realize not everything that comes to us can be permanently solved, particularly when it involves human behavior and motivation.  But everything can be addressed and engaged with a desire to make a difference and sometimes advances are made.  That’s how social progress happen.s And it’s always a chance for a work-out in the spiritual gym. 

            One year I worked in inner city Philadelphia with an African American pastor who had grown up in the neighborhood. I once asked her how she kept going.  “We just keep on keeping on,” she said.

            Maybe it’s like practicing medicine.  You can be a faithful physician or nurse without believing every disease will be eliminated in your lifetime.  You just keep bringing your best efforts to every patient while hoping for new advances and better treatments.

At La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, we regularly welcomed people who were striving to make the world a better place. They often arrived discouraged, depleted, and burnt out.  They unplugged and spent a few days resting and reflecting amid the 26-acre natural sanctuary. They’d leave renewed. Father Richard Rohr describes the dynamic:

One of the reasons I founded the Center for Action and Contemplation was to give activists some grounding in spirituality so they could continue working for social change, but from a stance much different than vengeance, ideology, or willpower pressing against willpower. Most activists I knew loved Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings on nonviolence. But it became clear to me that many of them had only an intellectual appreciation rather than a participation in the much deeper mystery. The ego was still in charge, and I often saw people creating victims of others who were not like them. It was still a power game, not the science of love as Jesus taught it.

            When we begin by connecting with our inner experience of communion rather than separation, our actions can become pure, clear, and firm. This kind of action, rooted in one’s True Self, comes from a deeper knowing of what is real, good, true, and beautiful, beyond labels and dualistic judgments of right or wrong. From this place, our energy is positive and has the most potential to create change for the good.[i]

Welcome to the spiritual gymnasium.  There’s no enrollment payment or monthly fees, and it’s open 24 hours, seven days a week. 

“Where do I get my membership card?” you might ask.

You’ve already got it – it was given to you at birth.

Photo: Huston Smith and me at Esalen, October 2010.  He was born May 31, 1919, in China and died in Berkeley in 2016 at age 97.  He continues to be an abiding inspiration in my life.

[i] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations, “The Root of Violence,” May 1, 2022: – search/  Thank you to my long-time friend and La Casa colleague Juliet Spohn-Twomey for calling attention to this post.

Living on the Back Side of the Tapestry

            Years ago, the great sage and scholar of all things spiritual, Huston Smith, spoke at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara.  He announced he had five talking points that evening – statements that the Santa Barbara audience might disagree with.  But, with a smile, he encouraged everyone to consider them.

            Each of the five points was provocative and memorable, and today I will comment on the fifth: “In the end, absolute perfection reigns.”

            He said he knew many people would think this is naive.  With so much suffering in the world, how can anyone believe perfection will emerge in the end?  But he stated it’s one principle all the major wisdom traditions agree on.  He also offered a metaphor to appreciate the concept: tapestries. 

            When you look at a tapestry from behind, it seems like a chaotic scramble of dangling bits of yarn and crossed threads. But if you walk around and see it from the front, you realize it’s actually an integrated, inspiring work of art.

            As we live our lives, he said, we can feel like we are creating something that looks like the back of that tapestry. We may go through days and seasons where we feel things aren’t working out the way we hoped, and our life has become a mess.  But in time – perhaps, as we keep going, or after we have left this life – the strands we felt were mistakes can be rewoven and incorporated into a larger fabric, and they will form something grand.

            I think about my family history.  I try to appreciate all that my ancestors went through, and that includes some dangling threads of tragedy, disappointment, and hardship. I want to live my life in a way that honors their accomplishments and also has compassion for what they may have felt were their failings.  It’s like I’m picking up pieces of thread from their lives and trying to give it new meaning as I find ways to weave their experiences into my own.

            I think about all the suffering people have endured due to race, gender and injustice.  I can’t do anything about the past.  But I can try to honor those sufferings and work towards a more just and humane world.

            I don’t know when my time on earth will be up. I go day by day, weaving my strands as best I can, assuming I’ll die with some left undone.  I hope those who follow me can pick those strands up and incorporate them into the lives they live, creating something good out of what I’ve done and from what I left unresolved.

            And if all humanity is doing that – if we are learning from the past while doing the best we can –that big tapestry is constantly evolving, and all the strands will ultimately find a place in the bigger work of art.

            And if there is a divine force in this world, present in all of nature and within each one of us, and if it’s endlessly at work helping us endure and learn and heal and create and serve – then we are not alone.  As we seek divine guidance and direction, we’ll find there’s a master artist at work alongside us, encouraging our creativity and leading us into new and novel patterns of meaning.

            As I say this, a skeptical voice within me speaks up. It tells me this is all wishful thinking. “We live, we die, life goes on and that’s it.”  I reply, “If that is the way it is, that’s OK…I’m grateful to have lived as long as I have, and to see all I’ve seen, and to have done the best I can.”

            But another voice in me thinks Huston Smith — and so many mystics — may be right. In the end, it’s not just about me, it’s about all of us, and that big, evolving, living tapestry we are all part of.  Maybe, just maybe, led, inspired, and sustained by divine grace, it will be true: “Absolute perfection reigns.”

Top Image: Jacquard paisley shawl (detail of front and reverse sides), Scotland, 19th century. Laura Foster Nicholson at https://lfntextiles.comtps://

Reflections on Grief, Gratitude, and Maturity

            My dear friend Father Larry Gosselin recently posted a quote from Francis Ward Weller, a therapist and grief counselor. I want to share it and a few of my own reflections.

            The work of the mature person

            Is to carry grief in one hand

            And gratitude in the other

            And to be stretched large by them.

            How much sorrow can I hold?

            That’s how much gratitude I can give.

            If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair.

            If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine

            And won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering.

            Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft,

            Which makes compassion possible.

            At times in my life, I’ve been asked who my “spiritual heroes” are.  My response: the many older people I’ve known in my congregations.  They’ve lived through hard times and personal tragedies, but somehow have become calm, thoughtful, and caring.

            To this I’d add Hospice volunteers who’ve experienced the loss of people they loved, then followed a calling to simply be present with others living in times of fear and unknowing.

            Of course, maturity doesn’t always come with the accumulation of age; some young people have unusual wisdom and insight. We call them “old souls.”

            I’m wary of simplistic formulas for life. I distrust promises that we can be happy all the time if we just make the right effort. 

            I’ve known people who have lost loved ones in ways that will always haunt me, and I don’t know how they bear it.

            I do not believe there is a divine pain manager who sends suffering our way to improve our character.

            Eleven years ago, I participated in a retreat at Esalen with the great mystic and global spirituality scholar, Huston Smith.  He was 91 and physically frail.  I remember him saying, “We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, we die in mystery.” He said those words with a full smile and clear light in his eyes.

            Something is here that holds us.


Image: Close-up of “Return of the Prodigal” by Rembrandt

Time to Go Vertical?

Today’s piece begins with a quiz. This photograph is:

  1. My grandson reaching out of our trailer’s skylight to see what it feels like.
  2. A visual metaphor for prayer.
  3. All the above.

            If you answered “c” you are correct.

            Last week’s entry on enlightenment included an homage to Huston Smith. No writer or thinker has inspired me more.  He consistently drew on a lifetime of scholarship and personal experience to make memorable, useful and simple statements.  The statement for today is: “When you find yourself in a difficult place, go vertical.”

            Huston believed that spiritual traditions are based on higher truths.  We live much of our lives “horizontally” – going through the day with routines, assumptions and interactions that serve us well.  But sometimes we run into situations – tragedies, difficult decisions, illnesses, crises — when ordinary ways of thinking don’t help. In those moments we can turn to spiritual truths, passed on to us from people who have transcended ordinary reality to see the bigger picture.  That’s going “vertical.”

            I’m going to share some experiences of “going vertical,” but first I will address concerns thoughtful people may have about “going vertical.” 

            “’Isn’t this an outmoded way of thinking with the divine being “up there” and us “down here?’” It’s a reasonable question.  Many ancient people did believe the divine was too pure or holy to be down in the muck with us.  God must be up at the top of that mountain, far away and safely removed.  Most of us would agree that’s not the way we think anymore.

             If someone asks me, “Where is God?” I would say “everywhere.”  Within each cell of every living creature, as well as all creation, as well as far beyond what we can see or know.  As Psalm 139 puts it:

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.
(New Revised Standard Version)

            Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is not far away, but within us and amongst us.  People experienced his stunning presence right where they lived – they did not have to ascend a mountain.  Buddha was asked where the authority for his teaching came from; he touched the ground and said, “Let the earth be my witness.”  Muhammed taught that Allah is closer to us than our own jugular vein.

            So, we don’t have to go up a mountain to find the divine.    

            But I believe it’s still useful to use metaphors that suggest we “go up” for spiritual truth.

            When your airplane lifts off and you see your town from a higher altitude, you can see where you live with greater perspective.

             “Inspiration Point “is a favorite hiking destination in Santa Barbara.   When you get to the top you have a stunning vista over the town and coastline. It’s in-spir-ing, as in “in-Spirit-ing.”

            So, it’s useful to consider spiritual truths as “Higher” because when we grasp them, many other things come into perspective.

            The trajectory of my life was changed in my early 20s when I was in a personal crisis. I’d been self-absorbed, skeptical of any truth beyond my own reasoning.  But at a moment when I felt my life was going to pieces, I reached out into the unknown and “went vertical:” I prayed for the first time. I’m not even sure what I said. But metaphorically my hand was reaching out into the unknown hoping something “up there” or “out there” might help me.  Three days later, I realized something had changed – at my very center, instead of darkness and fear, there seemed to be a tangible point of light.  I was stunned. I was grateful. It took me a long time to integrate the experience, but my life was literally saved when I “went vertical.”  It was my first experience of grace.

            Ministry is all about helping people “go vertical.”  

            For example, people would make an appointment with me and say, “I think my wife is having an affair with someone at work and I’m worried our marriage may be in danger.”

            I would ask for more background. If appropriate, I would say:

            “One of the most important things you can do is to deepen your spiritual life. This will make you stronger for whatever happens.  If reconciliation is possible, you will have a better sense of who you are and how to repair the relationship.  And if your partner does leave, faith will be a lifeline to take with you into the unknown.”

            In January of 2020, I flew to Vienna on my own for two weeks.  For the first several nights, jet lag kept me awake for hours.  I “went vertical,” spending much of the time reciting the 23rd Psalm in a careful, contemplative way.  I not only got through the night but sensed a kinship with all the people I know who live alone.

            When COVID came, prayer and meditation became even more important.  The divine presence is not threatened by a virus.  I am grateful for the daily renewal I felt in those early months, “going vertical” instead of being shut in by fear.

            There are many issues to explore regarding how we pray and what to expect. But I never regret a moment when I find myself afraid or uncertain and “go vertical,” reaching out for what I cannot see.

            Have you had such experiences?

            “The winds of grace are always blowing, but it is you who must raise the sails.” (Tagore)

“How Do You Know If Someone Is Enlightened?”

            Huston Smith has been a guiding light in my life. 

            I first encountered him in the 80s. I was teaching comparative religion in a small college and used his book, The Religions of the World, which students from diverse backgrounds always found engaging. In 1996, PBS broadcast a series of interviews of Huston with Bill Moyers, The Wisdom of Faith.  I saw him speak in Santa Barbara several times at the Lobero Theater and always left with a clear mind and full heart.  

            If you lined up to have him sign a book, he’d ask you to write down your name on a piece of paper because he was wanted to spell it correctly. He would carefully inscribe a greeting and hand you the book. Then he’d look into your eyes and smile.  A bright, warm light illuminated his face.

            In 2010, I spent four days with him and a group of 30 retreatants at Esalen Institute in Big Sur (where this photo was taken.)  He’d been teaching there for 50 years, and this turned out to be his last retreat.

            He was 90. He entered the small seminar room slowly on the arm of his daughter, who helped him to his seat.  His clothes were well-worn, and his yellow windbreaker was stained around the cuffs; it must have been a favorite.

            After he was seated, his daughter welcomed us. She noted her father was now very hard of hearing, so we should direct questions to her and she would relay them through his good ear.

            She nodded to him that we were ready.  

            When he began to speak, the wide smile emerged, and that light came to the surface.  His told us his plan for the week was to tell stories about the people he had met over his life: Aldous Huxley, the Dalai Lama (before he was known in the West), Martin Luther King, Jr., Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Bishop Tutu, Suzuki Roshi, Native American elders, Joseph Campbell and a long list of writers, thinkers and spiritual leaders.  He encouraged us to ask questions at any time.

            In my blog I’ll be sharing memorable statements Huston Smith made.  The first one has to do with enlightenment.

            “How do you know if someone is enlightened?” a woman asked, and his daughter conveyed the question to him.

            He paused for a moment.

            “If they tell you they are enlightened, they are not,” he said with a grin.  “Truly enlightened people don’t think about it; they don’t care.”  He illustrated the point with a story of his first meeting with the Dalai Lama.

            Over my career people have asked me who my favorite theologians are.  I’ve often named Wendell Berry, Bach and Rembrandt.  But I also point to the older people I’ve known in my congregations.  They have lived through many hardships but are at peace with who they are and always looking for quiet ways to serve others.

            I remember one such man, Walt Eby.  Walt was a retired engineer from the Midwest who had come to Santa Barbara as part of a job transfer from Wisconsin.  Walt was soft-spoken. He never served on a committee or spoke at an event.  But at coffee hour, he would stand on the patio and scan for any new people who might benefit from a word of welcome.  He would walk towards them holding his Styrofoam cup of coffee and introduce himself.  Soon you’d see the visitor smiling, relaxing and conversing.  If appropriate, Walt might introduce them to someone else on the patio with a similar interest or background.  He did this every Sunday. His ability of sensing who might need such care was uncanny.

            Walt had a particular gift for connecting with teenagers.  One young man appeared with his mom at our service.  Walt went over and introduced himself and began a conversation.  When they came back the next Sunday, Walt was there again with his friendly, low-key presence.  In time he discovered the family was going through a divorce and took a special interest in the young man.  Walt would call and invite the young man to hit some golf balls or perform some simple job around the church, like mowing the lawn.  He took him to serve the homeless at a soup kitchen. Later, the young man joined our youth group and helped build houses for the poor.  Walt showed him how to serve others and had a profound influence on the young man’s life as he did on many of us.

            The young man’s mother later told me how much Walt’s care and concern meant to both her and her son…it was a steady, loving connection in a difficult time.

            This was his way of being.

            If I had said, “Walt I think you are enlightened,” he would not know what I was talking about. Such words were irrelevant to him. It was just the way he was.

            When I was Director at La Casa de Maria, we annually hosted 200 groups from every spiritual path imaginable, as well as many nonprofits.  I was asked to review the application of a group that had come before. They were a growing group from LA focused on a charismatic leader. I asked the staff for any comments concerning their previous visit.  I was told the leader had once become frustrated, and publicly berated a staff member.  I gave instructions to deny the request.

            “If they tell you they are enlightened, they are not.”