Spiritual Life According to Georges Seurat

At the conclusion of the first act of the musical production Sunday in the Park with George, we watch the visual representation of the creative process of the artist Georges Seurat that results in the magnificent painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”, pictured here.

As Seurat (played by Mandy Patinkin), undertakes the painting, he verbalizes the principles that guide his creative process. It occurs to me that, given that spirituality is greatly connected to creativity, these principles might point toward an understanding of spiritual growth. Here then is spirituality according to Georges Seurat:

  1. Order. I greatly lack self-discipline. Always have. Yet it has become clear to me that my spiritual path requires some order by which I mean consistency. I cannot simply “be spiritual” whenever I feel like it. My spiritual path requires discipline and consistency if it is to bear benefit. I need a spiritual practice, be it reading scripture, meditating or praying,  charitable work, or other manifestations of the journey. and I need to perform these and other spiritual acts on a regular basis. Much like physical exercise, the spiritual path requires regular work-outs.
  2. Design. Here I must address how much structure my spiritual practice requires to include the role of organized religion. For some, organized religion is at the center of their journey. For others, it is peripheral if present at all. Further, some work with structured prayers and readings while others rely on meditation. Finally, I must also decide what if any room I make for thoughts from other religions and philosophies.
  3. Tension. Life is sufficiently confusing that, if I am not struggling in some spiritual way, I have adopted a soft safe spiritual path. If I am truly living out a spiritual life, I should be struggling with questions such as the reality of suffering or my purpose for being here. A spiritual path without tension is in danger of becoming stagnant. As a Jewish theologian said, if I am not arguing with God about something, there is a problem with my spirituality
  4. Balance. Many religions and philosophies espouse the importance of balance. For me, this is reflected in the challenge found in many religions to love my neighbor as myself.  Love of self is not narcissism. It involves not only celebration of my gifts but a hard honest inventory of my failings. In other words, it involves seeing myself as bot Saint and Sinner.
  5. Harmony. This quality ensures that my spirituality is truly interpersonal. As an introvert, I am drawn to solitary practice. But the principle of harmony reminds me that, if my practice does not bring me back into the world as a practitioner of peace and compassion, then my practice is mere narcissism.

I invite you, then, to reflect on how you are doing spiritually following Seurat’s guidelines for creativity. The results may not be as grand as Seurat’s magnificent painting but can hopefully bring you peace, satisfaction, and a bit of the kind of joy I feel when watching this beautiful scene.

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Gander, Newfoundland

Until recently, I’d never heard of Gander,  a Newfoundland town. Then I heard about a broadway musical called Come From Away. That in turn pointed me toward a book titled The Day the World Came to Town; 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland.

On that terrible day in 2001, airspace over the United States was closed and planes were directed to land immediately. One of the challenges was for planes flying to the States from Europe. Many were directed to Canada. 38 were directed to the airport in Gander, a town of some ten thousand people. Within a matter of hours, their population was increased by over six thousand. No one knew how long these visitors would be on the ground but, as the day progressed, it became clear that the passengers weren’t leaving anytime soon.

The story of how the people of Gander rose to the challenge of providing food and shelter for the passengers is one of the great stories of our time. Among other things, I realized how much I take for granted — taking a shower, having my medications available, having a bed and a blanket, being able to call a loved one. The story of those five days includes things I never would have thought of. As an ex-smoker, for example, I know how uncomfortable nicotine withdrawal can be!

The responsiveness and resourcefulness of the people of Gander is truly impressive. Pharmacists came together to get passengers their prescriptions (one thousand were filled the first day!) Veterinarians came together to tend to pets in the baggage section.  They even found a way to provide Orthodox Jewish passengers with kosher food.

The passengers’ time in Gander is filled with profound personal moments. Villagers responding with compassion to a couple with a firefighter son gone missing after the Towers collapsed.  Two couples trying to console children they’d adopted in Russia. A rabbi making himself available to speak with a villager who had hid his Jewish background.

I am drawn to this story because it offers hope. I and you have been in situations of powerlessness and fear only to have an angel intervene with a tangible offer of help. In Gander, the entire town responded. It is reassuring to know that, during a time that is otherwise typified by senseless violence and self-centered politics, there are some good people in the world. Not saints but simple down-to-earth folks who, on a dark day, responded with true lovingkindness. Mister Rogers once encouraged us to look for “the helpers” during bad times. He would be pleased to know of the people of Gander.

Reflection: What has your experience been with helpers during dark days?

For your enjoyment: Here is a scene from Come From Away. Enjoy. And yes the passengers did establish a scholarship fund for Gander!

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On St. Dismas

Still my favorite saint. Moreso now then ever. For Good Friday.

Psyche and Spirit/Richard B. Patterson PhD

We Catholics are big on saints. We are named after saints. We create artwork about saints. For me, saints are extraordinary people whose journeys inspire. From St. Thomas the Doubter to St. Damien among the Lepers, saints have helped me along the way. But my favorite saint is Dismas.

Dismas is better known as the Good Thief. His story appears only in the Gospel of Luke. He was one of the hoodlums crucified with Jesus. According to the Luke, as Jesus hung on the cross between two thieves, one began to berate Jesus, essentially saying “Do something!” The other thief, Dismas, told the first one to knock it off. “We deserve what we’re getting. He doesn’t”, says Dismas (Bear with my non-Lukian interpretation of Dismas’ words!) Here is Dismas, broken and humiliated yet feeling he deserves the cruel treatment he is receiving. Have you ever felt that way? That whatever is…

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What It’s Like Inside My Head


I was watching a TV program recently in which one of the characters said “No one knows what it’s like inside my head!” Interesting. It occurs to me that, like a lot of other bloggers, this blog may be an attempt to articulate some of what it’s like inside my head. That, however, would not be accurate since the majority of my writing has been around heavy intellectual themes. But then I walked into Johnson’s!

Johnson’s Art Gallery is found in Madrid, New Mexico along the Turquoise Trail. On a recent trip, my wife and I stopped in. If you look closely at the picture above, you will get a hint. Some beautiful painting left unguarded. A random pot. Cactus here, sagebrush there. Then we went inside!

We were met with random boxes of unfiled business papers, piles of books and photographs, all completely unorganized. For people who like organization, it is stressful. For me, I felt at home.

One of the owners commented “We’re trying to get organized but then we’ve been trying to get organized for ten years”. I came upon some beautiful photography of the Southwest, some wonderful paintings, even some old books and toys. But keep in mind that this was all quite random. In the midst of my wanderings, I chatted with one of the store clerks (or was he the owner?) about the Redsox.

When I went to make my purchases, one of the store people pointed to an elderly lady walking in with a cane and was told “She’ll take care of you.” This was Ms. Johnson herself. She had to poke around amidst a pile of papers to find her sales book. Next she had to search to find a pen. Next she was unsure of the cost. Then together we processed my payment through her credit processor. She thanked me for helping as we commiserated about modern technology. Then she again had to poke around to find a bag.

As I left, I thanked them all and said “This place has character! Don’t ever change!”

Then I had an epiphany. “That’s exactly how it is inside my head!” Chaos. Disorganization. Definitely not a business sense. And yet the unexpected treasure found in a corner. Interesting ideas floating amidst random busywork. Interesting bits of information having nothing to do with anything in particular yet exciting to discover. Poor attention to detail. Very random yet very creative. Down to earth. Prone to oversights and other types of mistakes. (For example, later that day we could not stay at our favorite hot springs spa because I had booked the wrong date!)

Somehow it was very comforting to have a metaphor for my own consciousness and it was reassuring that, on balance, that metaphor was a pleasant place to be.

Reflection: Do you have a metaphor for what it’s like inside your head?

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On Hell

I don’t believe much in hell anymore. Rather, I should say that I don’t believe in the hell of my youth. That hell terrified me for years such that, whenever I sinned, I would be in a huge hurry to get to confession and clean the slate. Hell was used by many teachers to frighten us into behaving. The alternative to good behavior would be a place of eternal fire. As such, I  once held my hand over an open flame to get an idea of what hell was like. Needless to say, this experiment lasted only a second or two and terrified me all the more.

To make matters worse, I was a bit of a behavior problem in school. It got so bad that at one point I told the nun to go to hell. Not a smart move! Amazingly I was not punished; however, some weeks later Sister was talking about hell and looked directly at me as she said “Some people need to worry about their own soul going to hell rather than telling others that.”

Over time, I came to see that I did not want to walk a spiritual path that was based on fear. What I wanted was to base my ethics on something other than fear. Two sentences have become the benchmarks of that path: 1.”Love your neighbor as yourself” and 2. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

I do believe that there is accountability in the hereafter. As one man who committed suicide told me in a dream “I’m supposed to wander for a while”. Presumably he had to come to terms with the impact of his actions.

My thoughts on hell have also been shaped by C.S. Lewis who suggested in his book The Great Divorce that even after we die we have the opportunity to be forgiven. Some souls, suggested Lewis, are so tied up in themselves that they reject that opportunity. Similarly, a saintly priest named John Long once suggested a vivid image. In hell, we are in a vacuum completely alone, revolving around ourselves.

Taoism would suggest that, if I have some believe in a glorious hereafter, I must also believe in its opposite. If there is a place of light, there must also be a place of darkness. I’m still working on that one. What I do know, however, is that I do not want to walk a path of fear. I want love to be the center of my spiritual world.

But as one friend challenged “Suppose you are wrong?” If so, there are likely to be some angry souls waiting for me with tire irons as I board the bus to Hell!

Reflections: Do your spiritual beliefs include anything about Hell?

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Learning to Love Yourself: An Inventory

I continue to meet people of service who have gotten out of balance because of their lives of service. These good people answer the call to love one’s neighbor but minimize the part about loving oneself.

I invite you to reflect on the following inventory to assess how well you are doing with loving yourself:

  1. I consistently take care of myself, get adequate rest, and avoid unnecessary stress. Many of the people of service I know are exhausted or not sleeping well. Others suffer health issues such as headaches.
  2. 2.I try to forgive myself and others since resentments are toxic and unhealthy. As several writers have noted, resentments are like trying to kill the rat by drinking the rat poison yourself. Think about someone you resent. Now listen to your body. Does your breathing get shallow? Stomach tense? Remember that the person who benefits most from forgiving is the forgiver and that forgiveness does not mean condoning.
  3. I am sensual. One of my biggest issues with organized religion is the degree of conflict established between body and spirit. Our bodies are a gift to be celebrated!
  4. I affirm myself on a daily basis. You might think this is corny or simplistic. But how often on a daily basis do you judge or even condemn yourself?
  5. I acknowledge the ways I am gifted. Your power is in your gifts. They are given to you to enrich your life and others. Just think of gifts beyond physical and athletic gifts.
  6. I feel joy more often than I feel guilt. Many of us get so focused on sin and avoiding it that we lose the in-born capacity for joy. What gives you joy? How often do you allow yourself those experiences?
  7. I admit my faults honestly and without defensiveness. We all have work to do given that we are all imperfect.
  8. I truly believe that God’s love for me is unconditional. This probably challenges me the most. I still am trying to shake the old image of a punitive, harsh God.                                                                                                                                                                             I know. Easier said than done. But there is way too much violence and conflict these days, much of which has its roots in self-hatred. By working on loving yourself, you really do contribute to the world in a way that matters
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On Your Inner Boo Radley

My favorite book and movie are To Kill a Mockingbird. When I first read the book, when I finished I turned back to page 1 and read it again. The first time I saw the movie I went back the next night to see it again. The book and movie have greatly impacted my life.

As I noted in an earlier post, Atticus Finch gave me a role model for being a father. But I also am drawn to one other figure who appears infrequently but looms large throughout the story. That figure is Boo Radley.

Boo was a neighbor who, by and large, was a recluse, kept at home in part because of a violent incident. Boo would probably be diagnosed as schizophrenic nowadays. Yet Boo becomes attached to the Finch children and starts to give them small gifts — a school spelling medal, a pocket knife, a broken watch and chain and other little surprises the children would find in a knothole of a tree.

Being a recluse, however, Boo was someone of whom the children were both afraid and intrigued by. As their friend Dill says, “Wonder what he does in there? Wonder what he looks like?”, starting an effort to make Boo Radley come out. And come out he does in a powerful act of self-sacrifice.

Why am I drawn to Boo? I think in part because I have parts of me that I kept locked up, mainly out of some sort of fear. Thus, for example in my own case, I kept creativity locked up out of fear of being criticized. Perhaps you have kept a part locked up as well. For some, they lock away their sexual side or their aggressive side. Others will simply lock up their capacity to love.

We know that the Shadow comes bearing a gift, just as Boo Radley did. But to receive that gift, we have to find a way to let our own Boo Radley come out.

Here then is a beautiful scene after Boo Radley comes out (And, yes, that is a very young Robert Duvall as Boo!)

Reflection: What is your inner Boo Radley like? Have you been able to let him/her out in some way?



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On Righteous Anger

When I was growing up Catholic, I was led to believe that being angry was a sin. Now this created quite a problems for me since I had a short temper and was prone to get into fights. One day in Church, though, I heard the story of Jesus in the temple. He becomes furious at people selling stuff within the temple. He makes a whip and starts knocking over tables. As I sat there listening, I thought “Gee, Jesus sure was pissed!” This of course set off another track of questioning. “If anger is a sin, then did Jesus sin?” (It occurs to me, by that way, that in this day and age, Jesus would have been arrested and referred for Anger Management. Jesus’ actions also give me pause when I see the bake sales and raffle tickets outside my Church on Sundays)

Anger became a troublesome feeling for me. I would either explode aggressively or take on The Silent Treatment. Both were unproductive.

There is plenty of reason to believe that suppressing anger is not good for us. It can cause health issues. It can lead to depression. And it can cause that spiritual type of cancer known as resentment.

Years ago my wife and I attended the Marriage Encounter program. Here I heard a novel notion: “Anger is just a feeling like any other feeling. It is not necessarily bad.” Indeed, I came to see that the problems is not with anger. The problem is what we do with anger.

Yet recently I met a very fine woman who had suffered terrible childhood abuse. Being a Christian, she believed that she was supposed to forgive her abuser. She resisted when I suggested that perhaps she first needed to be angry for a while. I then asked her “Do you know what Jesus had to say about people who harm children?” She didn’t know. In fact, he said they should have a huge rock tied around their necks and thrown into the sea!

We are indeed called to forgive. But the whole point of the Temple Incident much less throwing child abusers into the sea is that there also needs to be a place in our spiritual world for righteous anger. There needs to be balance.

Righteous anger becomes the foundation for protest and change. Without that righteous anger, the Catholics of Boston would never have held their cardinal responsible for covering up abuse by clergy. Without that righteous anger, there would never have been marches for civil rights. And at a personal level, I don’t think we can forgive until we first allow ourselves a degree of righteous anger. Without that anger, forgiveness is only an intellectual exercise.

Reflection: 1. How much trouble does anger cause you? Is there room for righteous anger in your spiritual world?

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On Being Odd

Recently my wife and I were walking home from Newton Square up in Massachusetts. Up ahead I saw a woman and a boy who appeared to be around 8 or 9 years old. As I got closer, I noticed the boy had a pacifier in his mouth. When I got up close, the boy removed the pacifier and began to say “You might think it’s funny that I …” I interrupted him and said “You don’t owe me an explanation.” Then I looked at him and told him”Don’t ever let anybody tell you how to be. You just be the person you want to be, ok?” He simply said “Ok”. As I walked away, the woman I assume was his mother said “Not enough people tell him that.”

Years ago, I heard a story about my mother-in-law. Betty was an extraordinary woman. She had raised 13 children as she was recovering from addiction. Strong as steel but on the surface very passive. In any case, back in the 70s, a friend persuaded her to attend an encounter group. These encounter groups were supposed to be for “being honest”, “letting it all hang out” etc. As the group progressed, someone commented “Betty, that’s a lovely scarf.” Betty deflected the compliment, saying “Oh, it belongs to my daughter.” Well the group erupted, telling Betty things like “You should accept a compliment” or “You should be more assertive” and so on. This lecturing went on for some minutes. Finally, it died down at which point my sweet mother-in-law looked around the group, smiled and said “You know, ‘should’ is a shitty word.” Brought the group to a dead halt!

Should is indeed a shitty word. That little boy up in Newton obviously felt like he should not have a pacifier in his mouth and that he should have to explain this behavior. He reminded me of ways I and most people I know compromise ourselves, avoiding being real in some unusual way because we shouldn’t do that and what would people think?

I’m not saying we give ourselves license to say and do anything we want to. In this world, we hurt one another a lot as it is. But what I also know is that most of us are constantly “shoulding” on ourselves, repressing a moment of creative authenticity because we “shouldn’t”.

I remember another time my wife and I were out to dinner. Our waitress, who looked to be maybe 20, had a wonderful smile. As we were paying the bill, I said to her “You have a beautiful smile. Don’t let anyone take it away from you.” She thanked me. Did she think I was just some nutty old man? Maybe. But I’m glad I said it.

When one hears about spiritual and psychological journeys, one hears words and phrases like “authenticity” or “Be yourself”. That’s fine but, to pursue such a path, we risk being viewed as “odd”. (A compliment I treasure, by the way, came from a man who told me he had met another psychologist here in El Paso. Referring to this other psychologist, this man said “He said you were rather odd.” At the time, it bothered me. At this point, I treasure it.)

So to the little boy in Newton and to anyone with ears to hear, I say “This world of ours is drying up with mindless conformity and sameness. Unique and creative behavior gets diagnosed instead of embraced. Dare to be yourself, even if others might view you as odd. As Zorba the Greek said “Without madness, you never cut the rope and are free!”

Reflection: 1. How are you limited by shoulds? In what ways do you like being “odd”?

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Of Marathons and Faith

I am currently reading a book about the streaks of the great baseball players Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripkin. As I read, I am thinking often of my own streak — running at least a mile every day for over 21 years. During that Streak, I ran 3 marathons.

I have written elsewhere that my running has woven itself into the fabric of my spiritual journey. When I read St. Paul’s famous words “I have finished the race. I have kept the faith”, many images come to mind. One of those images is the marathon so I thought I would share some spiritual lessons learned on the marathon road.

The first marathon was the Cape Cod Marathon in Falmouth in November 2000. I found out only later that, among hard-core marathoners, this is considered a tough marathon because of all the hills. My running of this marathon was also complicated by the fact that the previous weekend I found myself in Intensive Care because of asthma. Thankfully, I was able to recover and complete the marathon. Being loaded up with steroids probably helped. And, yes, I maintained the Streak despite being in ICU. But that’s another story.

As I stood at the starting line, I was grateful, an important spiritual reminder. I quickly learned that running a marathon is an act of faith, a belief that I am strong enough to run 26+ miles. I also learned another important lesson at Mile 24.

I was chugging along and saw a sign saying “Last hill.” I assumed this referred to the hill I just climbed. We round a corner and — another hill! (Or as I said aloud “What? Another @#$%&ing hill?”) So it is with a faith journey. We get through a trial and hope that somehow we have paid our dues when, sure enough, another hill. We just have to keep moving, whether it’s a marathon or a journey of faith.

The second marathon was in New York City in 2001, several weeks after the World Trade Center attacks. This time my first challenge was fear. At that early point, we did not know if there would be more attacks and several thousand people standing on a bridge would seem to be a desirable target. Indeed about one-third of registered runners dropped out. I thought of not going but, in my own way, I needed to send a message along with other runners that the run would continue despite tragedy. So it is with faith. The temptation to quit in the face of tribulation is always there. Needless to say, I was also faced with my ongoing argument with God as to why bad things happen to good people.

I also learned one other lesson. My sons Matt and Ben graciously came down from Boston to cheer me on. I saw them at several points, including Mile 23. I was determined that my sons would not see me walking and so I struggled on as they cheered. It wasn’t pretty. As Matt said later, “Yeah, Dad. You were barely shuffling.” So too it can be with faith. In the midst of trial, we must keep moving even if we are “barely shuffling.”

The third marathon was the Marine Corps Marathon in 2007, a beautiful run through Washington DC. I had learned that if runners were not at the 18th Street bridge by a certain hour, they would not be allowed to continue. So I and many other runners pushed to beat the deadline. As I ran onto the bridge, I noticed that, having accomplished this goal, many runners started to walk. That image got into my head and made it very difficult to keep running. So it is with faith. It is easy to take it easy. To do the minimal. To figure out what is the least we can do to “keep the faith”.

I don’t know if I’ve run my last marathon. What I do know is that the lessons I learned on the road will help me make these last few miles so that hopefully I too can say “I finished the race. I kept the faith.”

Reflection: Do you have a metaphor for your faith journey?

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