It’s an early Saturday morning and the sun tries to pour in through the cracks in my window curtains. My heart leaps at the sliver of light that finds its way in, and I don’t think of the things I have to do, the upcoming exam, the assignments due, the distance from my family, the laundry I need to clean, the run I need to go on, the emails I need to send, or the million actions I need to do. My heart rolls over with my body as I anticipate the bright, vibrant sun that bathes the earth in wonder, and the small part of that beautiful wonder I get to enjoy today. It is a small, simple, remarkable feeling of joy that the little sliver of light gives me. Daily I encounter–in myself or others–suffering, pain, illness, hopelessness, hurt, injustice, separation, and fear. It is easy to be bathed in the hurt of this life. In this moment, though, early on Saturday morning, in a corner of Boston, on a small bed in a small dorm, I feel hope and joy for all things ahead.
“There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” — Wendell Berry
I’m starting to understand that there truly are no unsacred places — this is a bold claim. Some may perceive the site where a white American minister burned himself alive in the name of racial reconciliation as unsacred, or the home of hundreds of incarcerated men and women as unsacred, or the doctor’s office where an abortion has been performed as unsacred, or a strip club where infidelity puts food on the table for women employees as unsacred. I am guilty, as I predict we all are, of having passed an opinion on each of these cases and many others without considering the human lives involved. And while yes, I do believe that there are very uncomfortable aspects in each of these places and scenarios, I’m starting to see that life is much more complicated than the simple dichotomy of sacred/unsacred or right/wrong or good/evil. I didn’t coin this distinction, though; that was Wendell Berry. Luckily it wasn’t me, because Berry importantly includes the alternative to unsacred: desecrated. I looked up “desecrated” in the dictionary to see exactly what he meant. Something desecrated has been violently disrespected, or possibly perverted, violated, infected, polluted, vandalized, debased, or degraded. Berry is onto something here. People — the most critiqued in society — are likely to have been victims of many waves of desecration in their lifetimes. I imagine people as those beautifully painted Russian nesting dolls. We may look whimsical and pleasing on the outside, but within each of us there are many unseen, hidden layers. These mysterious, unknown layers may be what have shifted some of us from the sacred to the desecrated. We’re all damaged, polluted, degraded in some way. Some of us are just better at hiding our layers than others.
So there are no unsacred places, only desecrated places, and those not yet desecrated, or the sacred. There are no unsacred people. There are people who have been cheated, lied to, abused, hurt, neglected, abandoned, scared, dishonored, gossiped about, rejected, and shamed; they are simply damaged. If someone we love is damaged, do we abandon them? Give up, toss them to the side, move on, and hope for better luck in the future? I hope the answer is no. At least, I’m hoping no one gives up on me. I’m damaged, just like you are. I want to see people as the complicated, multi-layered, dynamic living souls they are. This world is far too vivid and beautiful to see only in shades of black and white. That place we call harmony, sympathy, and understanding is all gray.
People talk about meditation as a new healing remedy, equivalent to the stardom of aspirin for heart attacks. Apps like “Headspace” and “Calm” lead users through a meditative practice, using words like “clear your mind, engage your senses, breatheeeee.” Sometimes this language feels foreign to those with busy minds and lives. It’s hard to see and understand the benefits of meditation unless you yourself experience it. I’m all for empirical evidence (and there is growing research on the benefits of yoga and meditation in cancer, post traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse disorder patients) so I understand the skepticism that often greets what some consider “out of this world” experiences. Meditation is much simpler than that though. It is simply making space to think, pray, dwell, or stop. It is a way to create opportunity for the thoughts you need to have about life, not the ones life is forcing you to have.
Last week during yoga, the end of my practice neared as we nestled into the comfortable and long-awaited pose of savasana or more clearly put: dead man’s pose. This pose is the final resting pose after many rounds of rigorous and challenging poses, a place to rest your mind and body and collect yourself before jetting off to the next appointed place. Savasana is a place where I’ve had some of my best thoughts, prayers, and ideas. Like meditation, this pose creates space.
I believe that God can give us visions, thoughts, words, people, dreams, signs — anything — to send us a message. The world is His creation and His spirit lives within us, so it is natural that when I have an image or word come in my head that I didn’t conceive, and it is good, then it is from God. I’ll try to describe my meditative vision I had last week during yoga as clearly as possible, leaving out personal details. I think anyone can imagine themselves as the narrator of this story, so I pray God uses my vision to speak to you as well.
I was standing outside of a very dense forest, with my nose almost touching the wintery, woodsy pines. I breathed in the crisp air around me and immediately felt filled with life and renewal. Curious, I took my hands and pulled apart the lush, thick greenery to peer inside the forest. My eyes wandered around as I drifted through the greenery and I saw old versions of myself deep within the woods, to the right and to the left. These versions of me were of my past, and I saw myself grappling with the old demons that caused me heartache, pain, and questioning. There were 3 distinct versions of me that I saw, each heartbroken over something in life that I’m now distinct from — redeemed from. As I observed the brokenness and pain that those girls felt — in middle school, high school, and college, I looked back at my path through the trees. The roots on the ground were knobby and distracting, the trees obstructed my vision to where the light came from, yet the path I had taken to this point was clear. As I left the forest and the past with it in those densely shaded trees and darkened canopy, I entered the light. I entered the present. I looked at myself differently now, with gratitude and love. I felt the warm sun shine down on my face. Instead of seeing my current flaws and shortcomings, anxiety and fears, I saw the triumphant moments I had overcome. I saw freedom, beauty, and healing.
I believe God gave me that vision to remind me to be thankful and to never forget how far He has brought me in this life. It was a simple, beautiful, and clear picture of God’s grace towards us in our brokenness, His love for wanting us even in those dark times, and the gratitude we owe to Him for pulling us out of the forest and into the light.
“Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.’
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’” — Matthew 26:36-39
When I was little, Easter was when we made “Easter trees” by clamping string into plastic eggs and hanging them outside. I remember picking out the perfect Easter dress for church and waking to a basket full of chocolate goodies and a new springtime piece of clothing. I remember – with a little competitive love – the exciting egg hunts and relaxing Sunday afternoon meal at my grandparents’ house. Easter has always had a bright, enlivening aura around it – the promise of a fresh breath of air, a happy season as the dawn of spring is carried in on Easter’s arrival. Easter brings new life. As a child I never understood why, but as I get older I understand more.
The image of Jesus in Matthew 26:36-39 is not filled with sunshine, flowers, and pastel colored eggs. He isn’t rejoicing at the promise of new life for us; Jesus mourns his own death. This is one of my favorite images of Jesus, not because he is filled with sorrow and grief, but because it shows him experiencing feelings that are innately human and worldly. How many times have we, collectively as humans, felt “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death”? At some point in our lives, we will feel the overwhelming, crippling grief that Jesus felt in the garden of Gethsemane. Maybe it will be the day our parents pass away, or when one of our friends gets a bad diagnosis, or when we feel immensely desolate. I’m not being cynical, but I am being realistic. We will likely experience these feelings in our lives.
This is the very reason why I love this image of Jesus. He was vulnerable, pained with the situation he was facing. How hopeless I would feel if I thought I had to go my whole life trying to live up to a Christlike figure that never felt the pain and sorrow of loss. Instead of viewing our own tragedies in conflict with the existence of a powerful, loving God, we should view them like Jesus did: painful, harrowing, but never the end of the story.
Jesus cried out to his Father to take the cup, to remove the tragic death he was about to encounter. I think we can learn so much from Jesus in this moment. First, it is okay to feel the heartbreaking reality of life’s circumstances. Jesus didn’t fake a bold, invincibility toward God. He accepted with humility his desperation and faced God with vulnerability and truth. Secondly, Jesus didn’t run from the Father. He didn’t try to evade God by turning to worldly promises. He turned toward God and prayed to Him. The realness of Jesus in this moment gives me hope that when I face hurt, tribulations, and defeat in this life, my response does not have to be trivialized; I don’t have to display false courage. While He is offering a behavioral response to difficult situations (if you can even call what Jesus was about to encounter difficult), He includes a didactic moment, too. That is, when times get tough (which they invariably will), the first place to go is to God. God will always meet us in prayer, even when we’re angry, unfaithful, and devastated.
While all of this seems sad and dark, there is indeed light that returns the vitality, beauty, and promise of new beginnings that Easter is known for. Jesus didn’t stop in this moment to lament indefinitely. He gets up and recognizes His fate – to save a world of sinners. He confidently says to his capturers in a scripture I love:
“Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” – Matthew 26:53-54
Jesus knew the implications of His crucifixion. He could have called on the Heavens and saved Himself from the pain He would encounter. But He didn’t. He embraced God’s will for His life and died to save the very man who hung him on the cross. It is a beautiful, overwhelming, incomprehensible love that he displayed for us.
Easter still has to me the excitement and fun that I remember as a child. I still love a good egg hunt and an elegant dress for church. I cherish getting together with my family and taking special time to remember why we celebrate this season of pastel-colored eggs and whimsical decorations. Now though, Easter is so much more than this. Yes, while the springtime flowers and sunny days are revitalizing, the promises that Jesus fulfilled on the cross will always be the most life-giving, hope-renewing, and beautiful treasures that I, and we, will ever receive.
The power of words. We often say that words are powerful, that they are able to transform the world, and I think we want to sincerely believe this. I also think we say a lot of things that we want to believe but struggle to fully support. In today’s society, it seems that action is valued more than words. I’ve always been told to “pay attention to how someone treats you, not what they tell you.” This is great advice that I’ve always valued. People can say a lot of things. They can say that they like you, are happy for you, or support you but truly their actions are what enforce these sentiments. But should we totally discount words? Should we be so jaded by the broken promises and empty declarations that are given to us in this world that we don’t even bother to care for the words others tell us? I romanticize things too much to think this way. I’m a classic optimist. Because of this, I’m led to believe that words are very powerful, even more powerful than action. This morning, I sat thinking about the young lady who coerced her boyfriend to commit suicide. How powerful her own words were. She was served a 15-month sentence; she had no weapon for evidence, was far from the crime scene, and unfortunately left questionable doubt in the jurors. I’ve been grappling with our justice system quite a lot here lately, internally, so I’m not sure what I would have done if I had to make a decision in that case. Sometimes I think about our criminal justice system and become appalled, as if I am viewing this world from the sky, watching how we treat other human beings – that’s another topic for another day though. Nonetheless, I am convinced that her words powerfully persuaded someone else to take his own life; and that is worth talking about. This case raises the awareness of how powerful our words are. We can use our tongue to convince someone they’re insignificant, unimportant, or inferior. Conversely, we hold a powerful tool to lift people up, enlighten, and encourage. Our words matter.
I remember with high acuity the times that people said something that penetrated deep and hurt who I am. Sometimes, words cut deeper than a real knife ever could. I would never punch someone, especially someone I love, but maybe I do mindlessly let my words hurt as bad as physical wounds? It’s hard to think like that. It is painful to imagine our words causing pain to someone else, but they do. We separate what we say and what we do so well in this society. You can post all you want on social media, but it doesn’t necessarily follow what you do. Likewise, it makes sense that we are more inclined to ascribe meaning to physical punches than verbal ones. If I hit someone, I leave a visible mark of the damage I’ve done. When I shame someone with my words, though, the mark I leave is invisible. This translates to the unquestionable nature of a physical illness (measurable diseases, like atherosclerosis or hypertension) versus mental illness (less objective measurements like depression or anxiety). Why does this dichotomy exist? Why do we delineate between what is seen and what is said? Haven’t we observed the cruel effects of cutting language and mental diseases, both of which provoke beautiful, purposeful lives to truly consider their worth on this planet? Shouldn’t we start talking about this? I think this case of a young girl strongly persuading her boyfriend to kill himself should wake us up but not come as a surprise of the power of words. Instead, it should serve as a reminder of the power we have to convince and convey ideas, true or false, harmful or helpful. I think this issue moves beyond merely being nice to others but speaks of the false authority we give to tangible, physical qualities (punches, heart disease) over more abstract concepts (language, mental illness). What is the best way to eliminate this dichotomy? I don’t know. But we can always start by talking about it.
It’s a Sunday, and I am currently making French press coffee. I have at least 20 things I need to be doing (many of them including coursework and cleaning), but I ardently miss writing so I decided to stop in the midst of my endless to-do list and do something that I truly love. I decided to write.
One of my great ambitions in this life is to show people that they can be who they are without trying to gain acceptance of the world. Through interactions, words, and actions, I hope I can be a testament to the freeing, empowering, and abundant mercy that God can shed upon a life. I was once in desperate need of worldly acceptance and affection. I deeply desired the pursuit of a boy and shaped my values, ideas, and philosophy on how to attract the people that would accept me. My entire set of values were, at one point, conformed to the eyes of the sinful world we live in. I had very little self value and self respect. I wore things that were disrespectful to my body and to my Father, I said things that didn’t reflect the values that had been instilled in me by my parents, and I was a person that had been molded by the world. I cared very little of the qualities that are valuable to life. I desired not to be seen as a woman of character and depth, but I valued the superficial and artificial acceptance of others. I settled for the promises of society and once I achieved those things, I found them empty and I found myself unhappy. I didn’t value my mind or the gifts that God had given me. I valued the way I looked and presented myself. I didn’t see importance in generosity, altruism, equality, or love-fueled sacrifices. I was blind to the truly beautiful qualities in this world. I lived a life that was shallow. I say these personal things about myself because I think I can I relate to many, many other girls right now.
It is an unfortunate circumstance that our lives are consumed by social media. I know personally that Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat subject my own thoughts to comparison of others. We see the hand-painted, perfectly edited, and flawless versions of the lives that we “follow”, and we become vaguely self-aware of our own lives. In my opinion, this type of self-awareness is extraordinarily detrimental. We see perfectly slender bodies, flawlessly applied makeup, and seemingly unshakable relationships. We see the lives we desire and our own become a shade less exciting and important. We observe achievements and success in the lives of others and our own successes become less honorary. We are captivated by comparison and begin living a watered-down version of the beautiful, unique, and meaningful life that God has given us.
I connect these two anecdotal points by this: I see many girls that I feel are where I was many years ago. Trapped by beauty and aesthetic pleasure. In the constant need of affection and love from a boy. I see women with talent and intelligence and creativity abandon it all for superficial external satisfaction. I know that social media contributes to this (because I am a victim as well!), and I just hope and pray that these beautiful, strong women are saved like I was. It is a tiring life, trying to be everything that the girl beside you is. It is hurtful. It is full of disappointments. But I’m here to tell you it truly doesn’t have to be that way. I am a living example of this!
He restores. He gives purpose. He fills you with self-love. With a love deeper, wider, and more genuine than any love you have experienced before. He replaces your yearning for acceptance with a desire to make others feel accepted and loved. He restores self-worth, self-respect, and self-values. He has given you a spiritual gift. He has given you a calling in this life. Only in restoration will you see your value to the world. I once desired worldly acceptance.
I am now restored from these empty desires. After many years of being loved the way I was supposed to be and giving the love I was called to give, I have peace. I have purpose. I have talent. I lead a meaningful life because God has shown me what matters. Not only has He given me a unique talent, but He has paved the way for so many opportunities for me. He replaced my loneliness with abundant friends. He replaced my yearning with a satisfaction. He made me valuable, and I know He has done the same for so many others. You can be beautifully complex, incredibly valuable, and perpetually loved all by being the natural, authentic you. Someone much more important than me has made that promise.
When I sit down to read René Descartes, it is more like sitting down and getting lost in conversation with an old friend than sitting alone while reading philosophy. I love Descartes. I am utterly captivated by his approach, explanations, and rebuttals. I want to share some of my adoration into this philosophy and specifically Descartes’ way of approaching God. I have personally found this short, concise book to be very influential in the way I methodically approach understanding and especially difficult spiritual questions.
Before I begin on Descartes’ methods, I should explain his background briefly. Pre-enlightenment, scientists were artists and philosophers and all of these creative roles were generally classified under the umbrella term, “thinkers”. Today, these disciplines are so extremely divided that scientists have abandoned art, artists know nothing of science, and philosophers the most removed from both. Although I think this dramatically harms our current society (the separation of explicitly intertwined ways of thought), there indeed was a time where these things were married and remained congruent in society. René Descartes was one of those men who was innately curious and this crept into everything he did in life. He was a scientist, a mathematician, and a philosopher. He was a Frenchman and wrote many of his philosophical musings during the 17th century. His perpetual skepticism is what attracts me so magnetically and is one of the chief reasons I regard him so highly. He doesn’t accept what anyone before him has argued and he even calls into doubt everything he has argued. His methods are logically sound, scientific, yet elegant and beautiful. He is clear, comprehensible, and takes your mind places and into thoughts you’ve never been before. He makes you think in novel ways, about new problems, with a unique perspective. He isn’t afraid of refutation or objection, in fact, he welcomes it and applauds countering opinions. He seeks the Truth, not status or some kind of intellectual superiority (like others I like much less such as Socrates). He brings together science, faith, and reason and shows that they are not separate from each other (not largely challenged during Descartes’ present day, but within a century would become a ludicrous argument in the eyes of modern scientists). He shows that we don’t have to compartmentalize our “selves” and can indeed prove that every particle of our being is in fact connected. He shows that at our most reduced selves, we remain thinkers. We possess the ability to dwell on things, contemplate them, and make decisions of logic and reason. René Descartes’ philosophy is one I hold very close to my heart.
Meditations on First Philosophy in Which the Existence of God and the Distinction between the Soul and the Body Are Demonstrated
Okay, Descartes wasn’t afraid of lengthy titles either. Often shortened to Descartes’ Meditations, these series of thoughts walk through his own methodology for understanding the existence of God. He doesn’t yell at you, throw anything at you, he never even speaks of sin, but he holds God at the foundation of his understanding (inadvertently expressed through the way in which he speaks of God at the beginning of the Meditations). Descartes’ thought journey is certainly spiritual, but it is not solely spiritual. It is intellectual. By nature, he approaches problems with a logical magnifying glass. He pokes and prods at the question from different angles, essentially using a complete reductionist approach (what a scientist). He begins by calling into doubt every single idea he has ever stored away in his thought bank. Not individually, but as a whole. Everything he knows and believes is erased and everything he once held as true becomes questionable, doubtful, uncertain. In doing this, however, he removes any prejudices. He becomes objective. His mind isn’t muddled by the opinions he has developed over the years. He takes a completely cynical and skeptical approach on a topic that is usually regarded as blind, with no basis for logic. He takes this route, walks you through a series of investigations of reason (dreams, physics, mind and body separation) and arrives at a beautifully comprehensible and sharp picture of what he was working through the entire time. His conclusions aren’t complete, and he even expresses his lack of empathy for those that only dwell on his conclusions and not on his methods of getting there. Descartes is not cowardly. He does not fear refutation. He shows that everything we know, everything we can know, and our most central reason for being is governed by God. Not because of lapse in reason, but because of reason. I won’t work through all of his argument, although I would love to, but I will leave some fragments of his work and an additional resource where you can contemplate your own conclusions from this book. Whatever you believe or don’t believe, much can be learned from his calculated, succinct Meditations and the mental joy ride he takes you on as you work through them.
On dreams being equally as devious as reality:
“How often does my evening slumber persuade me of such ordinary things as these: that I am here, clothed in my dressing gown, seated next to the fireplace – when in fact I am undressed in bed!”
On mathematics being the only reality not subject to perception:
“Thus it is not improper to conclude from this that physics, astronomy, medicine, and all other disciplines that are dependent upon the considerations of composite things are doubtful, and that, on the other hand, arithmetic, geometry, and other such disciplines, which treat nothing but the simplest and most general things and which are indifferent as to whether these things do or do not in fact exist, contain something certain and indubitable. For whether I am awake or asleep, 2 plus 3 make 5, and a square does not have more than 4 sides. It does not seem possible that such obvious truths should be subject to suspicion of being false.”
On what cannot be called into doubt:
“I am therefore precisely nothing but a thinking thing; that is, a mind, or intellect, or understanding, or reason – words of whose meaning I was previously ignorant. Yet I am a true thing and am truly existing; but what kind of thing? I have said it already: a thinking thing.”
“If the objective reality of any of my ideas is found to be so great that I am certain that the same reality was not in me, either formally or eminently, and that therefore I myself cannot be the cause of the idea, then it necessarily follows that I am not alone in the world, but that something else, which is the cause of this idea, also exists.”