Our theme for this month is Identity. And I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what exactly I wanted to say to you all about identity, especially in our current culture where the multitude of personal identities and how they intersect with privilege and oppression are so prevalent. And then I realised that so much of how we frame and cultivate and understand the identities we carry is through our personal experiences of the world… and that’s what often makes it so difficult for us to listen to each other’s experiences when they different from each other.
So what I want to write about to you this month is practicing contemplative awareness and discernment. Yes, it’s a mouthful. And it was one of the first things required of all Master of Divinity students the first semester of their first year at my seminary. It’s basically a credit/no credit class in which you learn about spiritual practices — what they are and why they work — and how to take the time and view your own life, and the experiences you have, in ways that deepen your connections and your presence in your own life. And part of that, in addition to the assigned exercises and readings, was to find ways to turn the previous ordinary and quite possibly forgettable elements of your everyday into spiritual practices.
One example that I have used for many years now is making folding laundry into a gratitude meditation. When folding bedsheets, I remember how grateful I am to have a bed inside four walls and under a roof. When folding my kids’ clothes, I give thanks that we were lucky enough to have them, and for the people in our lives that support us in feeding and clothing them. You get the idea. But that is still me connecting with my own experiences. What can help us slow down and take the time to consider another’s point of view?
My youngest child was born two weeks before I started seminary; so he was a newborn while I was taking this class. We were living in southern California at the time, which meant that there was no rain for the first several weeks after his birth. I came home from class one night, and he started fussing, so I picked him up and walked with him around the house. He’d entered that phase of development wherein he was able to focus on things a bit further away. And then, something happened for the first time in his short life — it began to rain.
His eyes were drawn to the sounds of the drops hitting the large window next to where we were standing, and his gaze latched on the water appearing and then sliding down, over and over again, lit up by outside house lights. My focus was entirely on him, watching rain for the first time, enchanted by wonder and curiosity. It was an experience that transported me out of myself and into the lived experience of someone else.
Now, doing this isn’t always a trip into enchantment. Oftentimes when we are listening to someone else’s lived experience it’s because it’s a painful story that needs to be heard so that healing and reconciliation can begin. But, if we make sure that we are always practicing with each other, we will have encounters with the entire spectrum of experiences that make up our identities: not just pain and suffering but also joy and happiness. And this, ultimately, is how we truly love each other.
In gratitude and faith,