Reflections by Jerry Webber

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Wall

As you can see from my post last week, I'm considering the size and shape of our personal world, and the many ways we draw circles around ourselves to create a world that is as large or small as we can stand to live in. In that spirit, I offer you this well-known poem by Robert Frost, "Mending Wall."

I'll not comment on the poem . . . but would love to commend it to you for your consideration and meditation. I'll provide some suggestions for reflection at the bottom of the post that might prompt you to work with Frost's poem a bit. To hear the poem, read it two or three times through, perhaps once or twice out loud. If you print the poem, highlight the lines that stand out for you, or the phrases that intrigue you. Jot down your own questions about the poem.

Mending Wall
by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."

** What might be the "something" that doesn't love a wall . . . the "something ... that wants it down"? I have a couple of ideas for myself. What do you think?

** "And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.

These three lines seem to be a statement that mocks civility, as if the work of keeping the wall in place -- and between the men -- was the most normal work in the world. How do you understand these lines, especially in light of the "something" that doesn't love a wall?

** There are several places where the poem implies, "This is how it has always been, and this is the way it will be into the days ahead." Note the passages which suggest a clinging to the past. How do you react to them?

**Hold these two lines in your hands -- perhaps one in each hand -- and consider them together. Then, see where you come down.
"Good fences make good neighbours."

"Why do good fences make good neighbours?"

**Frost writes,
"Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence

Think of walls you have encountered . . . either literal walls that separated you from others and impeded your travel . . . or metaphorical walls that have kept you apart or separated from a job, a vocation, a relationship, etc. As you consider specific encounters with a wall, what was walled out? What was walled in? (Walls always function both to wall out and to wall in, though that is seldom acknowledged.)

** What would you say to Robert Frost about his poem? Do you have questions to ask him? What would you like to know that you can't readily assume from the actual poem?

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Slow-Growing into God

Growth always comes with a cost. I'm not talking about growth as the day-in, day-out growing older that is part of being human. I'm talking about spiritual growth, emotional health, the ongoing development of the inner person.

Growth in any aspect of life always means leaving the previous season of life and stretching into something new and unknown. Maybe for that reason, a great many of us often feel stuck where we are. On the one hand, we grow comfortable and have a sense of ease and familiarity with where we are, even if that place is not particularly pleasant. Pleasant is good, and we much prefer the smooth ride to the bumpy, unpredictable journey.

Most of us, though, have to be jettisoned out of that kind of comfort in order to grow, in order to move toward the completeness for which we were created. Thrown into uncertainty or hardship, we are forced to find within ourselves the resources that have lain dormant within us, as well as calling on resources outside ourselves that we have not accessed previously. For most of us, difficulty provides a sharp-edged catalyst for growth that most of us would not undertake otherwise.

I've noticed that most all of us, no matter who we are and where we are in life, tend to think that we are fully formed right where we are in the current moment . . . that if we just tweak a few things and make some minor adjustments, we'll be the full expression of "me." Such is our conceit. Such is our illusion.

Most every discovery we make in our own growth or becoming feels like the one, missing puzzle piece. Each step we make feels like the final step over into the promised land, the final move into our long-sought-after destiny. I've met few people in life who did not think that where they were at that given moment was not their final landing place . . . which is why I've called it our "conceit" and "illusion." Every awakening feels like the ultimate awakening . . . but it is not.

In the Gospels, Jesus consistently invites us to grow up. He returns to it as a core message. Jesus does not have judgment for those who are stuck in particular places of development in the spiritual life. He knows that we can only get to the next place in life from where we are, so he doesn't belittle a person for being where they are.

He does, however, have harsh words for those who are stuck in life, but who pretend they are more advanced than anyone else. Note here that the harshest words of Jesus in the Gospels are aimed at those who, by outward appearance, are religious and flaunt their supposed "righteousness" for others to see. He has no condemnation for those who are "sinners" and who know they are "sinners" . . . only for those who pretend, by their religiosity, to be other than "sinners."

In a sense, those who are most openly religious in the Gospels don't feel the need to "grow up" or to make any kind of spiritual journey. They have arrived. They are completely all they need to be. They have all the answers, they've settled all the issues, they've worked out all the theology. Hence, they love to be seen by others as holy, applauded by the masses as righteous, honored by outsiders as having special access to the Holy.

Wisely, St. Benedict of Nursia said, "Do not wish to be called holy before you are."

But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says all of the above is merely early-stage religion. Not that it is unimportant -- Jesus is careful not to abolish anything in the Law (Matt. 5:17) -- but Jesus takes it in a different direction (Matt. 5:17-44). While some might have anticipated that Jesus would rachet up the Law to a more rigorous degree, instead he takes the Law inward. He begins with the Law as a kind of Religion 101, as a place to begin basic life with God in the world. "Do this" and "Don't do that." "Here's how you need to behave," the Law says in countless codes of behavior. It is important early stage religion.

Jesus, though, doesn't not notch up the Law a degree or two. Rather, he says, go inward. You've been concerned about behavior, about morality. Now go to the source of that behavior. Go to the root of morality. Because Jesus knew that any religious system that merely offered regulations for moderating behavior could not produce lasting life-change or transformation. In Jesus' estimation, the Law regulated behavior but did almost nothing to touch the interior of a person.

So he said things like, "You have heard it said, 'Don't kill.' I'm saying to you, don't be angry and don't hate." Jesus went, not just to the behavior itself, but to the inner source of the behavior. He said the same kind of thing not just about killing, but about adultery and taking oaths.

In other words, Jesus affirms and acknowledges the importance of a religious system that advocates for civil behavior; however, he does not wish us to remain at that place forever. He builds on that stage of development. He invites us to grow, to develop, to resist being locked into a particular way of being that becomes so settled we can never move from it.

We all need Religion 101, the basic initiation into religious life. And some of us need that training longer than others. We need to be fully grounded in explicit instructions that govern our behavior in order to function as God's people in the world. But Jesus is warning against the trap of thinking Religion 101 is the fullness or extent of religious devotion. It is not. There is more.

There is always more beyond where you are . . . wherever you are. The more beyond does not negate nor diminish where you are currently. You have to be where you are in order to get to where you are going . . . just don't take any place in life as the final destination. There is always more, always something larger still in front of you. Don't build a house where you are and settle there for a lifetime. Keep traveling. Keep growing. Keep becoming. No place is the final place.

How do I know where I am? Consider where you were 5 years ago . . . or 3 years ago . . . or 1 year ago. Are you the same person now? Do you have the same beliefs? the same practices? the same image of God, yourself, and other persons or groups? If yes, then you may have built a house where you are.

In the spiritual life we are always moving into a larger world, a more expansive vision, an increasing grace. At any given time, we are living into only a small part of who God is. We never live into all of God all at once.

We slowly live more deeply into God; that is the nature of God. What we see, experience, and apprehend at any juncture is incomplete, only a part of the whole. So we keep moving, keep traveling, keep becoming. This is the nature of our life's journey, our life in God.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Way In: A Rilke Poem

The Way In
Rainer Maria Rilke

Whoever you are: some evening take a step
out of your house, which you know so well.
Enormous space is near, your house lies where it begins,
whoever you are.
Your eyes find it hard to tear themselves
from the sloping threshold, but with your eyes
slowly, slowly, lift one black tree
up, so it stands against the sky: skinny, alone.
With that you have made the world. The world is immense
and like a word that is still growing in the silence.
In the same moment that your will grasps it,
your eyes, feeling its subtlety, will leave it. . . .

[Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Robert Bly, p. 71.]

I have lived with this Rilke poem for the better part of a year now. It first appeared on my radar as I considered a change of work and a move to another state. Last week I read it to a group on retreat at a Benedictine monastery. It seemed to have as much resonance with persons in that body as it has had with me.

Initially, the overlay on my life was obvious. I held a job I loved for 18 years, among a people I dearly loved. As such, I lived in a comfortable "house" for all those years, a house that was cozy and somewhat predictable, with regular rhythms and a consistent way for me to exercise my gifts. I was free to explore as needed, to occasionally move beyond the fences which would predictably arise. I found myself most fully "at home" in that house.

To step out of my "house" meant distance from friends and life-companions who were my extended family . . . distance from practices that had grown to be second-nature . . . and distance from financial security as I enter the late afternoon and evening of life.

Yet, as Rilke described the house, I knew it "so well." As familiar and cozy as it was, once the door cracked open and the light from outside the house rushed through the door-ajar, I had to step through . . . for reasons I did not fully understand then, and which I still cannot adequately verbalize.

I had other, previous experiences leaving "a house I knew so well," but in those experiences I was suffocating inside the house. In order to live and offer my life in service to the world, I had to step out of those houses. Last year, though, I was not pushed out the door, nor stepping away with a sense of desperate survival. I could have rocked along, business as usual, for a good, long while.

Nonetheless, it was time to "step outside the house." In a sense, this time as at other times, I had to do it. The invitation to step outside the house, as Rilke says, is the opening into the "enormous space" nearby . . . into the wild immensity of the world.

I'm no hero, villain, or saint for stepping out of that particular house. People make life-altering decisions all the time, sometimes out of courage, sometimes out of desperation, and sometimes just to survive. And truth be told, there are still plenty of houses I live in which I've yet to step out of.

A house is a structure, a confinement, a place of dwelling. It roots us, in the sense of limiting our movement, travel, or journey. Even on an intentional journey, a spiritual journey, humans seem to want to build dwelling places in which to settle. Maybe we do that out of our fear or for the sake of security. Whatever the reason, we seem to be very good at building and living confined within houses.

If "journey" is metaphor for moving onward in life, then "house" is metaphor for staying put where we are. Rilke simply says, "step out of your house some evening, the house that is so familiar to you."

Growth, especially spiritual becoming, does not consist in making sure everything is comfortable and well-ordered, safe and secure within the confines of my current "house," but rather, stretches, reaches, explores. Spiritual becoming means always expanding, including, opening. Authentic growth never keeps us confined, never makes us smaller, but always thrusts us into the world as redeeming, reconciling presences.

But taking a step out of our houses is no simple act. Many of our houses are well-constructed and have served us well for a lifetime.

The houses in which we dwell differ for each of us.
There is the house of what you believe.
Or the house of what you hold dear.
Or the house of what you belong to.
Or the house of your deepest loyalties.
Or the house of your politics.
Or the house of your ideology.
Or the house of your religious tradition.
Or the house of your roles.
Or the house of the way your parents raised you.
Or the house of what is required at your work.
Or the house of that toxic relationship.
Or the house of your identity group (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.).

Most of us live in many houses, and we stay in them because they are so familiar to us . . . we "know them so well." We may even say things like, "This is just who I am."

When Rilke says, "Take a step out of your house," he is not suggesting we should forsake the house, burn it down, or turn our backs on it. (Of course, there is a time to make a complete break from the house we know so well . . . but not in all cases.)

He simply says, "Step outside."
"Enormous space is near."
"The world is immense."

This is poetic wisdom: Just a simple step outside our role, our belief, or our must/should/oughts is a step into the world, into the vastness for which we were created. Most often, it is the first step that is most crucial, because without the first step there can be no successive steps. Take the first step, he says.

Last week on retreat, my friend David heard this poem for the first time. He pointed out something about the poem I had overlooked completely in months of pondering it. He noted the poem's title . . . while the main action of the poem is taking a step "out of your house," the poem is showing us "the way in."

This is how it goes. The way in, the way of living soul-fully, the way into a deepening life of significance, the way of accessing your own interior riches . . . all are accessed by taking a step out of the house you know so well!

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

"Who Are You?": It's Not as Simple as You Might Think

If I asked, "Who are you?", how would you respond? I imagine some answer might come immediately to your mind . . . but then you might end up walking back that initial response as you consider the question more deeply. I find myself circling around the question quite often . . . reflecting on it from different angles, coming at it from different directions.

Am I a role or a function? Am I what I do for a paycheck? Am I my vocation . . . in the larger sense of how I speak (vocare) into the world? Am I this or am I that?

What does it mean to be me in the world? What does it mean to be me in connection with God . . . others . . . the world?

While the exercise might seem self-serving, it really is the most fundamental kind of conversation we can enter into. And where we land with the question will speak volumes about how we see ourselves in connection with God, self, others, and the world. It will determine how we are in the world and then work its way into what we do in the world.

To my mind, the question concerns our essence, our being, rather than what we do or how we function. "Who am I?" does not invite a litany of positions I hold, tasks I perform, or a spreadsheet that details how I spend the hours of my day. The "being" -- or "essence" -- question gets to the core of my very self.

I have several reasons for raising these issues today. Among them, I've reflected quite a lot lately on Jesus, at 30 years old, going to the Jordan River to be dunked in the water by John the Baptizer. ("Dunked" is what the Greek word for baptism literally means.) The event signals the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, the short 3 year span in which he would proclaim a new way of being in the world (he called this new life-stance or framework for living the "kingdom of heaven" or "kingdom of God") through his ministry of making people whole through story-telling, acts of mercy, and invitations to live God-centric lives.

At this Jordan River moment, though, something happens that wasn't on anyone's radar. As he comes up out of the baptismal waters, the Heavenly Voice says, "This is my son, my beloved one, and I am well-pleased with him." It is an astonishing, pivotal moment. For Jesus, it establishes who he is right here at the beginning of his public ministry, a ministry that would be fraught with conflict and charges. The Voice speaks now, before Jesus performs a single miracle, before he does anything at all which would tempt him to believe he is God's beloved Son merely because he does good things, performs miracles, or heals the sick. God said, "You are pleasing to me" before Jesus did a single thing in public ministry.

In other words, Jesus did not earn this affirmation of his identity in God. It was not bestowed upon him because he was worthy of it. It was simply a statement of what is, apart from what he did or would do.

I know many people who, if asked, "Who are you?" would respond, "I am a beloved daughter of God" or "I am a son of God, loved all the way through." Many of those same people, though, know that truth only at the level of their mind and their lips. They may be able to believe the affirmation in some ways, and speak to it when asked, but then act as if who they are is totally dependent on what they do, how they perform, or how well they fulfill their function.

Truly, one of the most difficult things in life is to hear the Voice who speaks to each one of us, speaking into the deep, inner recesses of our lives, telling us about our identity as the beloved of God. It seems as if we can't quite believe who we are, given what we know of our own darkness and shadows, given all the dirt we have on our own selves. It seems we cannot believe we could be loved so thoroughly, so without merit.

In fact, most of us doubt the reality of our belovedness until we hear the words deep in our core, in our most inward heart. (I do believe that our souls know the truth of our identity . . . but other voices so drown out the quiet nudges of the soul that we live mostly unconvinced until we finally, one day hear the words in our deepest hearts, words the soul has known all along.)

For many of us, it takes a life-time to hear fully this affirmation of who we are. We get glimpses of it in another human who seems to know too much about us, yet still is committed to us, despite the mess of our lives.

Or we sense a bit of it in the simple, loyal connection we have to a pet who wags a tail and is overjoyed to see us, regardless of whether we have done well or acted badly.

As Matt Linn once suggested on a retreat . . . if you think of the person or the animal who seems to love you most in this world, who seems to have the most positive regard for you no matter what your life looks like . . . if you can sense how much that person or animal loves you, you can be sure that God loves you at least that much!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Case for God . . . Not the Experience of God

2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. 3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4 And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)

7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.
(Mark 9:2 - 10)

The Transfiguration story is important at several levels. It is especially challenging to those who have given themselves to an intentional journey of deepening life in God. Within a narrative full of movement (Jesus took . . . led them . . . they were coming down . . . all indicating journey and action), Peter gets struck by how "good it is for us to be here" and his desire to erect shelters, tabernacles, or booths. His suggestion that they create a memorial marker speaks to the perpetual human tendency to freeze spiritual experience in time, to codify the experience in order to remember it and perhaps to have it again at some later time.

Did you have a meaningful spiritual experience at this particular retreat center? Then go to that place again, and see if you can replicate that experience.

Did you sense God speaking to you through this book or author 10 years ago? Then read the book again, or another by the same author, and God will repeat the vision.

Did you find a particular set of spiritual practices meaningful to you as an adolescent? Then return to those practices in order to have a similar spiritual experience.

Did something significant happen to you today? Take a picture, post it to Facebook, and set it to your social media timeline. Next year on this date you'll be reminded of what happened today.

Was a particular sermon or worship experience meaningful to you? Buy the cd of the sermon and service . . . you can replay it as you drive around town, and be reminded always of the way you felt God come close in that experience.

Of course, these methods are not all bad, and I'm not suggesting there is never a place for them. All of them, however, are attempts to recreate a particular experience of God. There are so many different ways to build shelters and set up monuments to spiritual experience, just as Peter suggested on the mountain.

The real danger in the spiritual life is that the experience itself becomes a commodity, sought in and for itself. Most humans are complete addicts in this way . . . when something feels good, especially when we feel we have tapped into the numinous in a significant way, we want more of it. We want to repeat the same experience of peace . . . we want to have the same sense of generosity again . . . we want to know ourselves loved deep-down, not just for a moment, but always.

Addiction to spiritual experience is especially seductive, and because it is "spiritual," we assume it must be good. If a little is good, then more must be better, right?

Hear Thomas Merton:

The one great danger that confronts every person who takes spiritual experience seriously, is the danger of illuminism or, in Monsignor Ronald Knox's term, "enthusiasm". Here the problem is that of taking one's subjective experience so seriously that it becomes more important than truth, more important than God. Once spiritual experience becomes objectified, it turns into an idol. It becomes a "thing", a "reality" which we serve. We are not created for the service of any "thing", but for the service of God alone, Who is not and cannot be a "thing". To serve Him Who is no "object" is freedom. To live for spiritual experience is slavery, and such slavery makes the contemplative life just as secular (though in a more subtle way) as the service of any other "thing", no matter how base: money, pleasure, success. Indeed, the ruin of many potential contemplatives has been this avidity for spiritual success. (The Inner Experience, ed. by Thomas Hart, p. 139.)

The language of "idolatry" hearkens back to the Ten Commandments, which begin with the command to have only one God. To be sure, to use the language of idolatry for something which is seemingly good, like spiritual experience, seems extreme. Yet, that is the very nature of idolatry. Even good things that are not God must not be worshiped.

Let me be clear. I'm for spiritual experience.
Worship may be a spiritual experience.
Retreats may provide an experience of God.
Spiritual practices may open us to spiritual experience.

But spiritual experience is at least one degree away from God. As Merton says, the goal of the spiritual life is not experience, but God . . . to know God in a direct, unmediated way.

For this reason, the Christian mystics have proposed silence and solitude as the most basic contexts for knowing God, rather than some setting in which emotions and excitability were the driving forces. In silence and solitude, there are no words to get in the way, nothing about silence and solitude that can truly be described or prescribed, no way for the experience to be manipulated in order to get a particular experience of God. There is only God in the naked silence.

Also, this is the reason many of the great monastic traditions -- going back to the Desert Abbas and Ammas of the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries -- gathered in places which seemed extreme, building monasteries in places that were not lush or aesthetically abundant. Deserts, rocky outcroppings, and frigid tundras have provided monastic settings which tend toward the extremes. They have been chosen most often because their fierceness lends itself to the rawness and immediacy of God, rather than to an excitable religious experience. (20 years ago, Belden Lane's book, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, was a testament to this fierceness.)

Again, please do not diminish spiritual experience. Most all of us are prodded forward by spiritual experience, even the experience of God. But the goal is not more experience. The goal of life is God.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Beyond Gathering Information

A poem to ponder today . . .

David Ignatow

This tree has two million and seventy-five thousand leaves.
Perhaps I missed a leaf or two but I do feel triumphant
at having persisted in counting by hand branch by branch
and marked down on paper with pencil each total.
Adding them up was a pleasure I could understand;
I did something on my own that was not dependent on others,
and to count leaves is not less meaningful than to count the stars,
as astronomers are always doing.
They want the facts to be sure they have them all.
It would help them to know whether the world is finite.
I discovered one tree that is finite.
I must try counting the hairs on my head, and you too.
We could swap information.

I haven't read much poetry by David Ignatow, but I'm imagining his tongue planted firmly in cheek . . . as if knowing the number of leaves on a tree could tell all you needed to know about the tree . . . or as if counting the stars in the sky gave you all the information you needed about galaxies and solar systems . . . as if knowing how many hairs were on your head could exhaust the richness and complexity of being you.

Does having "facts" or the right information mean an object is finite, limited, able to be thoroughly understood or defined? Even in a culture where truth is reduced to "alternative facts" I think we know better than that.

**Take a look at a tree, a real tree, outside your window or from your porch. Better yet, go sit underneath a tree.
Then make your own list of what is important about that tree.
What makes it a tree?
What sustains it?
How would you describe that particular tree to someone who had never seen a tree before?
Or how would you describe that particular tree to someone who has seen thousands of trees before?
What makes this tree the unique tree it is?

**When the night-sky is clear, spend a few minutes sitting or lying underneath it.
Are you able to count what you see?
Notice what you see . . . what nuances make certain stars stand out more than others?
You don't have to imagine or conjure up something for the stars to mean . . . just enjoy watching what is.

**Consider your own life.
In what ways are you more than the hairs on your head?
What do you consider the most important information about yourself?
Are you willing to discover something else that would supplant that particular information as "most important" about yourself?
What do you most like about yourself?
What about yourself would you most like to change?
What truth abides at the core of you and shapes your daily life?
Think of a close friend. What would he/she say abides at your core and shapes your daily life?
How many hairs are on your head?

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Spirituality as Subtraction, not Addition

Decades ago my wife and I knew a man who loved to tinker with woodwork, doing some minor carpentry around his house. At some point, he decided to build an extra room onto his house. With family members helping in the project, he added the room. But one room was not enough. Soon he decided he needed another . . . then another. I don't know how many rooms he added in all, but over the years his house took up nearly every foot of his city lot. This amateur carpenter never took anything down, only adding to his existing house until it ate up his entire property.

We were guests in his house a couple of times, and when he would give us the tour of the latest project, we would walk through a room to a doorway cut in the strangest place, spilling into a misshapen hallway that led to the next room, where the same pattern would be repeated. It was the only way he could get everything to fit together. I suppose in an emergency there was only one way in and one way out, because the home seemed like an endless chain of rooms and angled hallways that had to be navigated single-file. The entire layout was connected, to be sure, but was only loosely held together by the builder's latest whim. While I'm sure the layout made sense to him, to others nothing seemed to cohere.

Because we regularly passed the house in our coming and going, my wife began calling it the "Add-on Extravaganza." It became something of a game to drive by and see what the latest project was, the next "add-on" in the extravaganza.

His way of adding on to his house was far removed from a renovation or refurbishment, in which walls are taken down, the existing arrangement of the house is altered, and the old bones of a house are given new life. In a renovation, something has to be subtracted before something else can be added. If you want more space for a kitchen, you demolish a wall and open up space into a dining or living area. In the end, you most always have to get rid of something in order to make space for something else.

In our desire for a deepening connection with God, persons who engage an intentional spiritual path often thrill to find new prayer methods, retreat experiences, spiritual books, conferences, and classes that hold the promise of another step toward awakening. I know this temptation well. The appeal of a new book or a gifted teacher can be overwhelming. It is quite easy for any of us to begin to add this teaching to that experience . . . to add this prayer practice to my bagful of spiritual disciplines . . . to add a new understanding of my own inner landscape to all the understandings of myself I've accumulated through the decades. Add add add add add. . . .

Jesus told a short, "the kingdom-of-heaven-is-like . . ." parable.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field." (Matt. 13:44)

It's one of my favorite parables on many levels. The field represents many things, including your life. If the field is your life, then treasure is within you. But the parable emphasizes that in order to apprehend the treasure, you much first sell what you have.

**Sell what you have in order to buy the treasure.
**Empty yourself of whatever fills your interior rooms in order to make room for the treasure.
**Spend whatever you currently have in order to receive this priceless treasure.
**Make any sacrifice necessary in order to claim the treasure.

And all this giving-up in order to receive does not happen in the context of a grinding, regretful sacrifice, as if spending and emptying were onerous tasks to undergo. The treasure is of such magnitude that the "selling" is undertaken with joy, what St. Clare of Assisi called a "laudable exchange." We exchange the small joy we have in our hands for the greater joy or the "pearl of great price" . . . the unimaginable joy -- because it cannot be imagined -- of this treasure.

There is an unmistakable "sell-buy" dynamic at work here. We cannot simply keep adding on, adding on, adding on, without at some point acknowledging that finding this treasure means there are things I have to release in order to apprehend it. I must let go of some things in my life-world in order to fully receive -- or "buy" -- some other things that bring life.

In other words, I cannot hold onto life as it is or life as I experience it now, and merely add-on components of the spiritual life if I want to become the person God created me to be. Spirituality is not an add-on extravaganza! In reality, it is more about subtraction than addition. Some things must be sold, released, emptied, and let go of, in order to make space within us for the treasure we seek.

Personal transformation is more like home renovation than an add-on extravaganza. Bit by bit, some walls are coming down, colors are changing, modes of access are becoming more spacious. There is some demolition involved, and very often the deconstruction is painful. But also, something new and beautiful is being built from the old bones of our lives.

In the life that is continually becoming, this process will take us to our final breath.