Spinach and Sweet Potatoes 

The Department on Aging feeds hundreds of senior adults each day using volunteer drivers. One of the meals I delivered today went to Mohammed, and another to a home with a Buddha statue. When you drive, you get a free meal. I couldn’t eat the ham because of Lent, but the spinach and sweet potatoes were good. 

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Almsgiving, Prayer, Fasting 

Our week staffing a homeless shelter began Monday. Our congregation provides food, laundry services, and volunteers to spend an evening at the shelter or sleep overnight. Overnight volunteers stay in a separate room for them. Last night dinner was hot dogs and baked beans. There have been 20-25 residents each night. They watch TV till 10 p.m., and then the men and women go to sleep in separate rooms. I spent the night there last night with a woman from my church. 

It occurred to me in the night that volunteering at a homeless shelter counts as almsgiving. Add to this my regular daily prayers and a Lenten fast Linda and I are on (abstaining from meat, fish, eggs, and dairy), and this week I am engaging in all three spiritual practices mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 6 — almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. These practices aren’t unique to Christianity; they are found in many religions. 

I wondered also in the night whether we should call almsgiving, prayer, and fasting spiritual practices. Does this label not put them in a special, esoteric category? Jesus saw these practices as natural and common, the ordinary equipment of any disciple. Almsgiving connects me to my neighbor in uncomfortable ways. Prayer connects me to God and allows God’s own breath to breathe in me. Fasting connects me to my embodied life and dampens its appetites. 

I will head back to the shelter this evening and open the door at 6:30. I will stay for a while and come back at 10 p.m. to lock up. The temperature tonight is supposed to be 9 degrees F, but Thursday and Friday night it will dip back below zero again. The shelter is aptly named Share the Warmth

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The Self Does Not Exist

Lately I am reading Doubt: A History, by Jennifer Hecht. It is becoming an unplanned Lenten practice. So far she has said Plato and Aristotle doubted stories of the gods and goddesses, and Qoheleth doubted the existence of the Hebrew God. This evening, while watching the Oscars, I have also learned that Buddha doubted the existence of the self. Letting go of a sense of self is a key part of our transformation.

We think we have a self, we assume it, it’s the thing reading this right now, mulling it all over. But spend some time seriously looking for that self and one’s internal experience starts to fragment into disparate flickers of thought and sensation…

The idea that the self does not exist becomes increasingly intuitive. We are each a composite of sensations and actions…

The Buddha said that happiness was available to us if only we could simply set down our unfounded conviction that the self exists and must be protected. It does not exist, there is nothing to protect, and we are living in a very different world than we had ever dreamed.

It reminded me of St Paul’s teaching that his self no longer existed — only the life of Christ existed in him. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. This life that I live now, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave his life for me.” (Galatians‬ ‭2‬:‭20‬ GNT)

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Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Oliver Sacks, after being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer.

Detachment was a character trait cultivated by the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They also viewed life from an altitude, although it was a different sort of altitude than what Sacks speaks of. His altitude is linked to faith in humanity — theirs was an altitude born of faith in God.

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Memory Is Malleable

Memories don’t live as single, complete events in one spot in the brain. Instead they exist as fragments of information, stored in different parts of our mind. Over time, as the memories are retrieved, or we see news footage about the event or have conversations with others, the story can change as the mind recombines these bits of information and mistakenly stores them as memories. This process essentially creates a new version of the event that, to the storyteller, feels like the truth.

The article is here.

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Keeping Silence

The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him.
(Habakkuk 2:20 NRSV)

I have been taking part in an online course on silence led by Brent Bill, a Quaker writer. He offers a wealth of good advice on the practice of keeping silence each day. I am also listening to Thich Nhat Hanh’s new book Silence. In the first chapter he speaks of inner silence and outer silence — silence of the mind as well as of the surroundings. As a result, I am resolved to attend less to social media and the news media, each of which creates interior noise in me.

Also, today I wrote on a piece of paper a pair of words: Silence and Words. Then I wrote down a series of word pairs that suggested themselves.

Silence — Words
Faith — Works
Eternal — Temporal
Spirit — Flesh
Breath — Noise
Christ — Religion
Light — Darkness
Gospel — Law
Forgiveness — Judgment
Grace — Gravity
Solitude — Mob
Wisdom — Ignorance

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For the last ten years, the rover Opportunity has been exploring the surface of Mars, or at least a few miles of it. It has sent back thousands of images like the one above. The rover leaves tracks as it travels. It’s a stunning thought, really, that on another planet there is a human made object leaving traces of itself behind.

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