Spiritual Mentors: C.S. Lewis

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I have been blessed with many spiritual mentors during my journey and continue to meet new ones along the way. But I always seem to come back to C.S. Lewis. I suppose that one theme that draws me to him is that he doubted and was honest about it. Rather than avoiding or dismissing his doubts, he would embrace them and wrestle with them. In my own journey as a Doubter, I have always found hope when I return to C.S. Lewis. He has helped me see my doubts as a doorway.

Lewis is perhaps best known nowadays as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of children’s stories with strong spiritual themes. They are stories any child or adult can enjoy.

Many of his non-fiction works have enriched my journey. One is Mere Christianity which touches on his own spiritual journey. Another is The Great Divorce which helped me find a belief about the afterlife that was not grounded in fear.

I think, though, that I have been most touched by his efforts to address the spiritual problem of pain. Lewis was a man, much like Harold Kushner, whose beliefs about pain were grounded in reality.

Lewis had been living his life as a middle-aged professor when he met Joy Davidman. He fell in love and married Joy, happy beyond belief. But in short order tragedy struck as his beloved wife died from cancer. He was challenged to apply his beliefs that God indeed had a plan behind our suffering. This journey is portrayed in the play and film Shadowlands.

Out of his grief came the best book I know of on grief — his simple A Grief Observed, which is a sharing of the first year after his wife’s death. The book ends not with some happy note of closure but with the reality that Lewis was still grieving and would continue to do so the rest of his life.

I counseled with one beautiful woman who had lost her husband of over 50 years. She shared with me that she had been given about 10-15 books on grief by well-intentioned friends. Being somewhat compliant, she had read them all and shared that she was totally confused. “One book tells me to give my husband’s belongings away. Another tells me to keep them as long as I want. All these books contradict one another!” So….I gave her another book to read! It was Lewis’ A Grief Observed. She thanked me when she returned stating that it was the first book she’d found helpful not because it had any answers but because it helped her see that her grief as she experienced it was normal and good.

Here then are a few jewels I have found in C.S. Lewis’ words:

“Doctrines are not God; they are only a kind of map.”

“Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.” (This is a more eloquent version of AA’s “Fake it ’til you make it.”)

“Every war, every famine or plague, almost every deathbed, is the monument to a petition that was not granted.”

“The world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumor going around that some of us are some day going to come to life.”

Further Reading: A good place to start reading C.S. Lewis is the sampling of his works found in The Joyful Christian.

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On Choosing Death

There is a man I know — a very good faith-filled man —  who is choosing to die. He has been a dialysis patient for over 10 years and is not a transplant candidate. He has slowly watched the quality of his life ebb over those ten years and has finally decided to stop dialysis.

This is a man who some would say is not intelligent, having tested with an IQ score of 82. However, this is also the man who one day asked me “How is the mind like a parachute?” I shrugged my shoulders and he smiled and said “When it’s open!” Pretty wise. I have told him over time that he has a very high level of emotional intelligence, a fact he reflected when noting that those he needed to talk to about his decision might need to express some grief of their own (as did I).

My friend approached his decision in a very thorough manner, talking to people at the dialysis center, people at the nursing home where he lives, his brother, and his pastor. When he first discussed this decision with me, he indicated his church planned to have a healing ceremony with him. When he returned after that time of prayer over him, he was more settled and at peace with his decision. I told him the healing had worked. He said that, of all the people he’d talked to, the only one who was angry about his decision was his medical doctor. My friend displayed full awareness that the process of dying would be painful and could take a few weeks. Nonetheless, he was ready

As I gave him a hug, I told him that I fully supported his decision and that Jesus was waiting for him with open arms. I assured him that he was completely rational and that this was not an extension of the suicidal thoughts he’d had in years past.

When my father was into his third year of dementia, my cousin mentioned “Some of us live too long.” This was true of my dad. It’s also true of my friend. Modern medicine is indeed a miracle but at what price?

The beauty of this man is that he is not just suddenly paying attention to the quality of his life at the end. I have known him for 20 years and have watched him overcome mental illness and a history of childhood trauma while trying to embrace life as he joyfully rode his bicycle about town.

I am not a believer in suicide as a solution to life’s problems. But my friend has challenged me to consider to what degree I am  obliged to prolong life, my own in particular, if quality is absent. I can only hope that, if I am ever faced with such a decision, I will face it with the same degree of courage as my friend.

Reflection: Have you had any experiences with people choosing death?


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On Fathers

I’d like to repost this in loving memory of Robert A. Patterson 1914-2000

Psyche and Spirit/Richard B. Patterson PhD

The Linn brothers have written that our image of God is often skewed through the realities of our Dads.

I first became a father at age 24 when our eldest Matthew was born. I had no clue as to how to be a Dad. As most of us do, I looked at my own Dad.

Like most fathers, mine was flawed. He had a volatile temper (although he never laid a hand on me). Like most men of his era, he was not affectionate because “men don’t kiss. They shake hands.” And he worked a lot.

As far as faith goes, his seems to have been dominated by guilt, not uncommon among Catholics then and now. As he would say after his second stroke, “I think I’m being punished for my sins.” How he dealt with my sisters’ deaths I don’t know. He never talked about it. I never actually…

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On Childhood Heroes: Jimmy Piersall

I wanted to repost this today upon learning of the passing of Jimmy Piersall, one of my earliest heroes

Psyche and Spirit/Richard B. Patterson PhD

I read somewhere once that stories that were favorites when we were children usually tell something about us (Mine was Ferdinand the Bull). The same is likely true of our childhood heroes.

Like the song says, many of my boyhood heroes were cowboys. Hopalong Cassidy. The Lone Ranger. Shane. But one was a baseball player.

Jimmy Piersall was an average ball player whose career included tenures with the Boston Redsox, Cleveland Indians, and New York Mets. He achieved much attention for his antics. Sitting in the shade of a centerfield flag pole during a pitching change. Decking two fans who tried to assault him on field. Running the bases backwards after hitting his 100th homerun. He was also known for having had a very public mental breakdown while with the Redsox. Nowadays he likely would be diagnosed to be suffering from Bipolar Disorder. So I suppose it tells something about…

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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

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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.
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On Spiritual Mentors: John Muir

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“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?

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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?

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On Mystical Madness

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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?

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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?

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