Memorial Day 2017

Over the course of my career as a psychologist, I have met with many, many combat veterans. As they have shared their stories of war and loss, I have become increasingly opposed to war. The damage to body, mind, and spirit is horrific beyond words with too many veterans suffering internally and too many ending their lives because of pain becoming unbearable.

In the course of this work, I have been privileged to meet many heroes. Some were heroic in a traditional sense such as a veteran who pulled two soldiers from a burning hooch. Others were heroic in a more quiet way such as the WWII veteran who quietly suffered daily nightmares for over 60 years without complaint.

This weekend many of the veterans I know will be grieving as they think of beloved comrades who died in combat or at their own hands. Some had best buddies die in their arms. Others found their comrades dead from suicide. Many of these same veterans ask themselves the question that has no answer “Why them and not me?”

Some will take comfort in spiritual beliefs, convinced their comrades are in a better place, no longer suffering. All will cry, often in private.

Among other things, I will think of my great aunt Margaret. I was sitting visiting with her back in the late 1960s. She was in her late 80s at the time. She looked at me and asked “Richard, what do you think of this war (Viet Nam)?” By my reckoning, the Viet Nam War was the fifth war my aunt had lived through. I told her I didn’t think it was a good thing. , She said “Neither do I” then sadly shook her head and said “So many young men..” It was the finest anti-war sentiment I’ve ever heard.

I oppose war not because of any political belief. I oppose it because of what it does to body, mind, and spirit. I oppose it because there are too many families that will gather around photos and tombstones next Sunday grieving an absence. Indeed, Aunt Margaret. So many young men. And women.

In memory of my fallen military brothers and sisters, I share this tribute courtesy of Trace Adkins

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged | 2 Comments

On Books That Made a Difference

Each of our spiritual journeys is influenced by different sources. For some, it may be a particular mentor. For others, it may be specific experiences. My journey is filled with persons and experiences, some positive, some not. But many of the benchmarks on my journey are books. So I want to share with you my shortlist of high-impact books that have enriched my spiritual journey. Some are spiritual in nature, some are not. Hopefully as I share, you will be constructing your own list. My books are listed in no particular order:

  1. The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen. This book has been a guide in my work as a therapist. It also got me on the road to sobriety.
  2. New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. Here are collected many of Merton’s thoughts. It has helped me to stay humble.
  3. Our Town by Thornton Wilder. This play has given me a framework for thinking of the afterlife. Several versions are available for viewing. I recommend the one with Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas.
  4. Thich Nhat Hanh Living Buddha, Living Christ. My journey has been helped by Buddhism. This book gives me a bridge to link Buddhism to my Christian roots.
  5. Joseph Telushkin Jewish Literacy, Telushkin’s work helped me embrace the Jewish roots that all Christians have.
  6. C.S. Lewis A Grief Observed. I could list several of this great man’s works but this one gave me a deeper more humane understanding of grief.
  7. Matthew Linn, Sheila Fabricant, and Dennis Lynn Healing the Eight Stages of Life.  This work helped me broaden and heal my image of the God of my understanding and specifically helped  me experience a feminine side of God.
  8. Anne Lamott Traveling Mercies. I relate to her patchwork quilt brand of spirituality.
  9. Marcus Borg Convictions.  This is the most recent addition to my list. His sharing of his own journey organized around the themes of memory, conversion, and conviction deepened my understanding of struggles along the way.
  10. Loren Eiseley The Starthrower. Eiseley was the first writer to help me embrace the sacredness of nature.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               I didn’t place the Bible on here. I am nearing the conclusion of my fourth reading of the Bible. It is a rich source of spiritual wisdom but definitely not an easy read.       I encourage you to make your own list and share it here in the form of a comment. I have been directed to several very helpful books by other travelers.
Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

On Spiritual Mentors: John Muir

Image result for john muir

“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” –John Muir

In the spirit of honesty, my experience as a naturalist is limited. I have never been on a backpack trip. I don’t climb mountains. I’ve only been on a white water trip once. And yet I also now that the outdoors is for me sacred. As I wrote previously, the outdoors is part of what I call “church”. Mystical moments for me have included a chance encounter with a herd of deer in Lincoln National Forest, running alone on a beach on the Skellig Coast, watching the sun rise during a morning desert run, and other potent encounters with God through nature

Naturalist John Muir is known to many as the man (along with Theodore Roosevelt) responsible for the National Parks. He is also the founder of the Sierra Club. In many ways, any environmentalist movement has its roots in the work of John Muir. He encouraged people to visit the outdoors and thereby “get close to God.”

What is less known is the deeply spiritual flavor of Muir’s work and writings. He was raised within a strict Calvinist setting but in time rejected the notion that all of nature is there in service to humans and that nature was “fallen”. He wrote that “all of the individual ‘things’ or ‘beings’…are sparks of the Divine Soul variously clothed upon with flesh, leaves, or that harder tissue called rock” and that all of nature had the potential to “draw us up into God’s light”.

Muir also came to view death as an extension of the natural God-ordained cycle: “All the merry dwellers of the trees and streams…go home through death…all alike passed on and away under the law of death and love. Yet all (parts of nature) are our brothers and they enjoy life as we do, share heaven’s blessings with us, die and are buried in hallowed ground, come with us out of eternity and return into eternity.”

For Muir, animals were a vibrant part of creation and also manifested the Divine Spark. He even affirmed this Divine Spark to be present in an alligator he encountered! For those of us city folk, we may have been blessed with encounters with God through our pets, thereby suggesting that neglect and abandonment of our pets may indeed be sinful!

John Muir was a mystic. Even though he decried the adequacy of words, his poetic insights can be as spiritually enriching as an Scared Scripture. He was right. Going out into nature is indeed going in, thereby encountering the Kingdom Within. I need only pay attention for, as Muir wrote, “This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere.”

Recommended Reading: Muir was a prolific writer. I highly recommend the collection of his writings edited and introduced by Tim Flinders as part of the Modern Spiritual Masters Series.

Reflections: Where does nature fit into your spiritual world?

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

This is my Church!

In an earlier posting, I included a scene from the film On the Waterfront in which the character Father Barry (as portrayed by Karl Malden) is confronting union officials on the death of a dock worker. One thug yells “Go back to your Church, Father!” and Father Barry yells back “Boys, this is my church!”

As I was watching that scene again, I found myself wondering “Where or what is my church?” Is it that building 3 blocks from my house where my wife and I walk to most Sundays to attend Mass? I don’t think so.

My church is a setting in which I have an encounter with God. Not a message from God. Not a sign (as much as I would like one!) An encounter in which I feel the presence of some Power greater than myself.

Some would describe these experiences as moments of wonder or awe. Others might view them as some sort of mystical experience. All that I know is that I rarely experience God’s presence in a formal church.

So I know what isn’t my church.

My church is first of all found in nature. I resonate to the words of John Muir whose church clearly was in the wilderness. Muir referred to the Sierra high country as “a divine manuscript” and noted further “Every natural object is a conductor of divinity.” The experience I wrote about last week at Big Bend National Park is one such experience of divinity. I recall too encountering God on an empty beach in the Skelligs of Ireland as well as in a harvest of basil from my herb garden.

I encounter God through art. Thus, I experienced God when I stood before Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks”. I met God in listening to my daughter and the Tacoma Symphony present Dvorak’s “New World Symphony”. I heard God’s Voice as I listened to Andrea Bocelli sing “Nessum Dorma”. I was touched by God as I watched and listened to my wife’s portrayal of Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. Such encounters left me speechless. Even as I write here, the words are inadequate.

I strongly encounter God when I reflect on the human brain which is for me perhaps the most compelling evidence that God is. In the play Inherit the Wind (a fictional account of the Scopes Monkey Trial in which a teacher is condemned for teaching evolution), Matthew Brady confronts the professed agnostic Henry Drummond on whether Drummond believes in miracles. Drummond responds with a resounding yes and points to the human mind as the greatest of miracles: “In a child’s power to master the multiplication table there is more sanctity than all your shouted “Amens!” The brain is to me a breath-taking cathedral of God’s.

Most importantly, for me the Introvert it is important to understand that I also encounter God through my loved ones. Their faces. Their voices. Their laughter. I encounter God as I sit with a veteran trying to heal from the horrors of war or a couple trying to find a way to heal their wounded relationship. All are part of my church. After all, the Bible says: “God is love and he/she who abides in love abides in God.”

Some would say this is panentheism, a belief that God is both immanent and transcendent. Part of all creation yet apart from all creation. So be it. All that I know is that God is all around me, not simply in that building over on George Dieter Street. I just need to pay attention.

Reflection: What and where is your church?

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

On Mystical Madness

Image may contain: mountain, outdoor, nature and water

Last week my wife and I hiked into Santa Elena Canyon (pictured above) in Big Bend National Park. We were both struck speechless by the beauty. My wife, having the gift of enthusiasm, said “I’d love to sing.” So together we stood in the depth of the canyon and sang loud enough for it to echo down the canyon. We sang “Amazing Grace”. As we finished, my wife pointed to the sky. Two eagles circled high above, giving us an Amen.

William James, writing in his classic Varieties of Religious Experience, described mystical experience to consist of 4 elements: ineffability, the inadequacy of words to capture the experience; noetic quality, that is, a sense of insight into a deep truth; transitory; and passive, which means one can’t generate a mystical experience. They simply find us. James also noted “Certain aspects of nature have a peculiar power of awakening … mystical moods.” (p. 310)

Madness, too, involves a “stepping out”, a letting go of concern about what will others think. In that regard, madness involves a certain risk, certainly a risk of judgment and rejection. When you look at various YouTube portrayals of individuals giving free hugs, you note that a lot of folks look the other way and walk on by. In a more serious vain, acts of mystical madness can get you locked up. Consider what would happen, say, to St. Francis of Assisi. As an expression of liberation from the world of possessions, Francis supposedly went into the town square and removed his clothes. Today such action would most likely result in hospitalization. Yet for Francis it was a profound moment of spiritual madness and liberation.

The only real step we can take into the world of mystical madness is to be open to it. To pay attention. To not dismiss an opportunity.

There is another challenge to mystical madness. Big Bend National Park is 200 miles from El Paso. Must I travel 200 miles to experience mystical madness? Rabbi David Wolpe notes an invitation to become a normal mystic which Wolpe describes as someone who “…looks at life as you and I know it, but with an acute eye, one that tracks…the suggestion of God in every corner, at every turn.” (The Healer of Shattered Hearts, (p. 81). There is the key. Sensing God’s presence in ways I cannot articulate with words. Sensing connection with someone in a profound way that eludes description. Such experiences are available amidst the skyscrapers as well as in nature. I just need to be open to them and to pay attention. As the great naturalist John Muir wrote “The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere.”

As my wife and I stood and sang, I felt connection. To the God of my understanding. To my wife. To the canyons walls. To the hawks circling overhead. Others might see this as sentimental and perhaps a little nutty. I will remember this gift of beautiful mystical madness for the rest of my life.

Reflection: What have been your experiences of mystical madness?

Posted in psychology, spirituality | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

On Spiritual Food

I’ve often heard people comment on what happens at their churches with the phrase “I’m not being fed.” I’ve even had that thought myself after dozing through an uninspired sermon. But wait! Am I not responsible for choosing what I ingest physically and spiritually? beyond that, what do I ingest spiritually that is the equivalent of junk food?

What has fed and continues to feed me spiritually? This is not as easy a question to answer as you might think. First of all, I face the painful fact that traditional religious practices such as attending Mass often don’t feed me. On some mornings the music enriches me and perhaps the readings. There are mornings too when I have touched the mystical elements at church. But sadly I often leave hungry.

Thankfully, I find others ways to be fed. Here are a few ways:

Physical: 1.I do enjoy a good meal and fellowship with my wife. 2.Running is my form of meditation. Some of the most profound mystical moments I’ve had occurred while running; 3. Sexual intimacy can be profoundly spiritual.

Mental: Throughout this blog I have cited writers who have fed me. Nouwen. Merton. Bonhoeffer. Frankl. Thich Naht Hahn. Dorothy Day. These and other writers have consistently inspired and challenged me. I go back to them when hungry.

Emotional: There is no doubt but that I get fed nutritious spiritual food through the arts. Here are a few examples

Judy Collins singing “Amazing Grace”

Dylan Thomas reading “Do Not Go gentle into that Good Night”

The theme of hope in “The Shawshank Redemption”

If I am going to develop a menu of spiritual food then I also honestly need to face what is not healthy for my spirit.  For me, this would include anything with the power of addiction. Been there. Done that. It poisoned my spirit.   I’m also wary of anyone or anything who advertises having the answers. I don’t think there are any easy ones. But those easy answers can feel good going down.

Reflection: What feeds you spiritually?

Posted in spirituality | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

On Martyrs: Dorothy Day

I wanted to repost this in memory of Clare Mummert, a beautiful spiritual woman here in El Paso whose godmother was Dorothy Day

Psyche and Spirit/Richard B. Patterson PhD


I trust that someday soon the Catholic Church will decalre Dorothy Day a saint (even though she did not like being called a saint). Dorothy is a saint to whom I can relate.

The first part of Dorothy Day’s life is the story of a lost soul — alcohol abuse, an abortion, suicide attempts, another child out of wedlock. But then Dorothy found a center for herself and converted to Catholicism.

Even in her “lost years” Dorothy was drawn to help the poor. After her conversion she and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker movement, opening homes to the marginalized, offering meals to the starving. Catholic Worker homes can be found throughout the United States to this day.

Dorothy also became a prolific writer, in part through her newspaper. But, more than anything else, she became a Christ-like presence in our midst. Dorothy lived the Christian message. She ministered to…

View original post 86 more words

Posted in spirituality | 1 Comment

On Immigration

Some years ago my wife and I visited a museum in Cobh Ireland. This town was known previously as Queenstown and was a point of departure for Irish immigrants. When I saw the exhibits that portrayed the conditions endured by immigrants so that they could start a new life in America, I was very moved.

My people came to America later than many Irish and Scottish immigrants. Patrick McDonald and James Patterson came to America in the 1870s and Will Lynch brought his family from Wales in 1882. One of his family was my grandmother.

Patrick McDonald’s first house in Hawley PA was a shack. James Patterson went to the coal mines for work, as did many of my other relatives. The Irish faced much prejudice here in America. As they looked for work, many encountered signs saying “Irish need not apply”.

But they endured and slowly, slowly they were able to build lives such that my cousin Bob, my brother and I were the first college graduates on both sides of the family. I and my family have benefitted from the great sacrifices and suffering of these immigrants.

For me, the current crises over immigration has a personal impact. While my family may not have been welcomed, they did pursue opportunity, a pursuit that has greatly benefitted me.

I now live in El Paso TX, a border town rich with a bicultural atmosphere that provides opportunities for immigrants. Young people not only from Mexico but from oppressed countries in Central America as well as the Middle East find opportunities for education and work.

Given my background, how could I possibly support a ban on certain immigrants? How can I possibly ignore the Biblical exhortation to welcome the stranger? Would I not be turning my back on my own immigrant family members?

Yes, I know there are problems of available jobs and crime and infrastructures. The challenges are formidable. But I cannot condone closing doors as the solution.

I am grateful to the McDonalds and Pattersons and Lynchs who endured great hardship not that long ago so that my parents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins could all have a better life. Because of them, I stand with those who are struggling to keep doors open.

Reflections: 1. What are your experiences with immigration? Do you see the current crisis as a spiritual issue?

The enclosed is shared in loving memory of James Patterson, Patrick McDonald, Will Lynch, Ellen Lynch (Ducey), and others of my family who opened doors for me by getting onto boats to a new land and enduring poverty, rejection, coal mines and so much more. I am grateful!

Posted in spirituality | 7 Comments

On Christianity and Protest

As I look back over my writings here and elsewhere over the past few years, I note that many whom I call spiritual mentors and heroes were men and women not afraid to speak up in protest when political actions stood in opposition to their Christian principles or simply their notions of morality.

On the day after national protests on behalf of immigrants, I am certain that persons such as Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, and Pete Seeger would have been at airports yesterday on behalf of those detained by presidential edict. I know that today Thomas Merton would be penning a letter of protest.

Some who call themselves Christian have criticized those who speak out, claiming there is no place in Christianity for politics. Yet the founder of Christianity was a rebel who spoke out and who constantly challenged not just religious officials but politicians as He reminded time and again us to love our neighbor, telling us, among other things, “I was a stranger and you invited me into your home.”

I fear that in some ways Christianity has failed. I was accused once of being a “Cafeteria Catholic”, picking and choosing what I believe. So be it. I choose to think about what I believe, not accept it without question. In any case, many Christians nowadays pick and chose what they quote from the Bible. Some offer an arbitrary definition of what it means to be “pro-life”. Others justify war and violence.

I’m hardly a Biblical scholar but it seems clear to me that we are called to love our neighbor without exception! This means I am called to love not only the nice people but also my enemy. Jesus Christ didn’t seem to make any exceptions to the commandment to love.

It isn’t easy being a Christian. It never was meant to be. I’ll close then with a scene from the classic movie On the Waterfront. In this scene, we see a Catholic priest stand up to gangsters who ran the union for dock workers. This character was based on a real priest (one who in fact was criticized for his political involvement!) His words, as portrayed by Karl Malden, speak to us today during this time when, as Christians, we are called not to be silent.


Reflection: What if any role does protest play in your spiritual journey?

Posted in spirituality | 2 Comments

On Spritual Mentors: Thomas Merton

It was shortly after I left the Army in 1979 that I began my search for a bridge between psychology and spirituality. One of the early architects of that bridge was Thomas Merton.

I had a copy of Merton’s well-known biography The Seven-Story Mountain but found some of the guidance I sought in other of his writings.

As a young man, Thomas Merton lived the fast life but when that life began to be empty, he turned to spiritual pursuits. His search eventually took him to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. There he found his way and became a Trappist monk.

While Merton treasured the life of a monk, he found in his meditation and prayer a connection to mankind that he would later articulate in passionate writings on behalf of racial justice as well as opposition to nuclear proliferation. Finding a connection to others by looking inward was an early bit of guidance Merton offered me.

Thomas Merton also gave me permission to pursue my growing interest in other religions. Merton spent much of his life exploring common ground with other paths, especially Zen Buddhism. He made connection with Thich Nhat Hahn who would also become a mentor for me.

Merton has offered me hope through being very human. He fell in love with a nurse who cared for him and conducted a correspondence with her. While he may have struggled, he also celebrated this woman’s beauty and his attraction to her. This humanness made Merton more accessible as has the humanness of other spiritual mentors such as Henri Nouwen and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Merton and others have helped me revise my understanding of sainthood.

In New Seeds of Contemplation Merton opened for me the notion of the God of my understanding long before I came to know the Twelve Steps. Merton wrote: “Our idea of God tells us more about oursleves than about Him.” (p.15) He also reminded me to quiet the noise in my head when he wrote “So keep still and let Him do some work.”(p.261)

Also important on my journey was Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. In the spirit of paradox, Merton observes: “God help the man who thinks he knows all about himself” (p.150), a powerful caution against my arrogance. And as I observe the current lack of dialogue in politics as well as religion, these words of Merton are relevent: “…when one is firmly convinced of his own rightness and goodness, he can without qualm perpetrate the most appalling evil.” (p.170)

Merton died in Thailand while attending an inter-faith conference between Catholic and non-Catholic monks. The seeds he planted in my mind and heart many years ago continue to yield fruit.

Reflection: 1. Who are some early influences on your journey?

2. What role does silence play on your journey?


Posted in spirituality | Tagged , | 4 Comments