Choose the Better Story

I admit, I wasn’t an instant fan of Life of Pi (the book) when it first came out, because I’m not a big fiction-reader. But then I attended an event where Yann Martel spoke. His novel Life of Pi was soaring on the popularity charts (and was later made into a movie). Martel began his presentation by quoting the most frequent question asked by his readers: is Life of Pi true? He spent the rest of his talk sharing a brilliant multi-faceted explanation of truth. I went home and read the book, almost in one sitting. I was literally blown away; Martel’s/Pi’s insights have stuck like gems that keep instructing me as I continue to explore that all-time favourite question, “What is truth?”

Of course the story is true, replied Martel. All good stories are true. Good art is always true. There are truths that go beyond factual or scientific truth, such as moral truth, literary truth, emotional truth, historical truth. Religion does it, art, music and literature do it, fairy tales do it. They don’t contradict facts; they simply go beyond facts, further and deeper.

For all its touting of sophistication and modern living, it often seems as if  our western culture is losing the heart’s ability to live an awareness of truth that exceeds hard data and one-dimensional knowing. With the diminishment of religious adherence and practice, along with a flattened version of reality and a trivialization of the arts in various quarters, we risk becoming an impoverished species. How very sad and boring that would be.

Fortunately for us all, the likes of Yann Martel arise periodically to give us a jolt of what is really real and rich and deep and meaningful and goes far beyond what we can measure in facts and touch with our hands: Mystical writings in all traditions acknowledge the mystery of life and suggest ways of engaging with that mystery, even though it remains impossible to comprehend intellectually. You can view the world in different ways – historical, scientific, social, political – but there are limits to what you can do with a calculator or a hammer. You must make a leap of faith to get the full flavour of life. (Yann Martel Interview)

It is probably for this reason that Martel’s introduction to Life of Pi includes  an enigmatic line: Let me tell you a story that will make you believe in God.

Religious belief is one of the most fascinating themes in Life of Pi. Early on in the novel, Pi notes that religion is off-putting to many people because they believe it constrains  our freedom. He criticizes such positions for not realizing that ‘freedom’ outside of ritual and order, whether religious or secular, can be extremely frightening. Pi learns that the stakes at sea are much higher. In the absence of taken-for-granted order he faces life and death situations every day. It is his religious faith that gets him through — an implicit rebuke to those who believe faith limits freedom.

Martel asserts a strong relationship between religious faith and storytelling. Pi pities agnostics who are so paralyzed they cannot believe in anything. He admires atheists for having the courage to claim God’s non-existence and for working hard to justify their non-belief.

Pi’s fascination with stories leads him to embrace no less than three religions — Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism. He cannot understand how gods can be represented in such radically different ways, and wonders how to love the human Jesus. Until Father Martin suggests to the young Pi that we tell the same story in multiple ways to come to the same conclusion.

Pi’s beliefs mature throughout the novel. His first brushes with religion lead him to find several mentors and experiment with various forms of prayer, whether it be in  a church, mosque or the temple. However, only when he is on his forced journey at sea, does he realize that he truly believes in God. His faith is tested in a way that it was not before when life seemed orderly and predictable.

So enjoy here some of Martel’s/Pi’s nuggets of truth:

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

“When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.”

“It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.”

“If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

“You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.”

“People fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.”

“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”

“If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

“The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity—it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud.”

“I was giving up. I would have given up — if a voice hadn’t made itself heard in my heart. The voice said ‘I will not die. I refuse it. I will make it through this nightmare. I will beat the odds, as great as they are. I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen everyday. I will put in all the hard work necessary. Yes, so long as God is with me, I will not die. Amen.’ ”

In short, repeating Martel’s own words from the interview quoted earlier, Life of Pi sums up as follows:

1) Life is a story.
2) You can choose your story.
3) A story with God is the better story.

Prairie Encounters

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The Universe Story in Us

I wrote the reflection below in January of this year. I am bringing it back now in light of Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato Si. When new insight or conversion cuts deep into our hearts, there is one question that spontaneously jumps from our enlightened spirit and that is, ‘What then must we do?’ It is the question that sprung from the hearts of those who heard John the Baptist preach (Luke 3:10). And so, for those whose hearts are moved with this renewed desire, the Pope’s encyclical contains many practical tips on how to adjust and simplify our lifestyle. Check this article: The Pope’s Practical Tips for helping the environment.

The reason for this re-posting is not to position myself as having “all the answers” and as in any way superior to others. Please do not draw that conclusion. What I want most is to show in a small way that lifestyle choices can be made responsibly without succumbing to almighty consumer pressures. While I may have been choosing simplicity for most of my adult life, I am a pilgrim on the journey like everyone else. Part of being human is to accept there are many times where I stumble and fall, give in to temptation and damage the earth with foolish living. May this re-posting be a reminder of our common ecological vocation and an encouragement for us all:

Moving from the densely populated country of the Netherlands, from a home above a store surrounded by bricks and cement, to a farm on the Canadian prairies at the end of a dirt road, 6 km from the nearest school, church and store had an earth-shattering effect on me. I knew the theory well – living off the land in harmony with nature, following the rhythm of the seasons. At the time of my pioneering on the Canadian prairies I had the fledgling spiritual underpinnings of a cosmic worldview, arising directly from my Christian/Catholic faith and Scripture itself. The very notion of God as Trinity, God’s incarnation in Jesus and the Church’s sacramental theology, worldview and practices helped me to expect everything in creation to bear not only God’s imprint (image and likeness) but also as capable of communicating God’s holy and loving presence. I gave myself completely to what Gerald Manley Hopkins captures so eloquently in his famous poem:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. (1877)

The plants and animals, the seasons and tides of creation have been spiritual muse, emotional compass and daily mentor for much of my life, affecting every detail both practical and spiritual. From my teenage bike rides in the forest to today’s baking of bread, I have always felt that my place in the universe and my responsibility in it necessitated careful discernment in life choices. Fostering freedom from a consumer mentality was grounded in a commitment to care for the earth. Choosing a natural method of family planning was grounded in a profound respect for the gift of life, the refusal to pollute our bodies with artificial hormones (as well as the land with chemicals) and the need to live in harmony with our human capacity to co-create with God. Living without modern conveniences was motivated by a desire to let nature mold and guide our daily family rhythms with the accompanying tasks of freezing, canning and storing the winter supply of food. Literary companions, such as Sharon Butala’s The Perfection of the Morning and Kathleen Norris’ Dakota: A Spiritual Geography played pivotal roles in my ability to place our little individual lives tucked away at the end of a dirt road firmly and deeply into the Saskatchewan prairie soil and against a wider cosmic backdrop (greatly aided by the stunning beauty of the natural setting with bush and fields, hills and lake, blue herons and pelicans …).

I give a lot of credit to Jim, my gardening and seed-growing husband, who has lived an intimate connection to the earth all his life; he taught me so much about the wonder of nature and the need to reverence all living things (even when seeds seem to take forever to germinate – don’t ever give up!). Yes, he does talk to all his plants with profound love and respect … Even now as we have moved into a more urban setting and our three children have been launched into their own cosmic orbit, creation continues to help us navigate life choices respectful of the earth’s well-being and remains a source of profound spiritual nourishment and guidance. It’s simply a deep part of my/our identity.

My first book entitled Finding the Treasure Within – A Woman’s Journey into Preaching (2002, Novalis) includes the following words as I share about the choices Jim and I made from the day we married:

        We were not comfortable in adopting unquestioned middle class, materialistic values in our self-identity and lifestyle, nor did we think of farming as agribusiness. The rebel in us both pushed us into counter-cultural choices, so as not to enslave ourselves. The prison of modern living looked more suffocating than the time-consuming and labour-intensive activities of hauling water from the lake, growing and preserving our own food, and chopping wood for cooking and heating. William McNamara’s spirituality became real for us: I share the secret of the child, of the saints and sages, as well as of clowns and fools when I realize how wondrous and marvelous it is to carry fuel and draw water. Once the spiritual significance of such ordinary earthy acts dawns on me, I can skip the yoga and the koans, the mantras and the novenas. (p. 56, Mystical Passion, William McNamara OCD, Element Books Ltd., Rockport, MA, 1991)

As I reflect on the extent that creation/nature and an evolving cosmic consciousness have been an integral part of my living and growing for the better part of my adult life, two things stand out. First of all, the cosmic story touted today as “new” cosmology is really not that “new.” All of it is present in the Biblical writings in both Old and New Testaments, in the life-teaching-suffering-death-resurrection of Jesus, as well as in our own Church’s understanding of the Incarnation and its sacramental life. I saw, heard and tasted it there, I was captivated by it in those sacred words, understandings and practices many years ago already, before I knew much  about the great scientific discoveries of the universe as we now understand it.

Having said that, I know all too well the struggles and challenges of living thoughtfully in cosmic consciousness while failing miserably — often.  And even in living the fullness of a cosmic consciousness, human tendencies of rigidity and deceit, judgment and clinging, laziness and sloth remain alive and well, reminiscent of Thomas Merton’s astute observation that upon entering the monastery he wasn’t any holier than anyone else: ‘All my bad habits…had sneaked into the monastery with me and had received the religious vesture along with me: spiritual gluttony, spiritual sensuality, spiritual pride.’  (The Seven Storey Mountain)

I am merely questioning the “newness” claimed by those now doing theology from a renewed cosmic awareness informed and formed by present scientific insights and discoveries. Mystics in all religious traditions have always and everywhere accessed this cosmic consciousness throughout history. Maybe a better way to describe the newness is that the unitive consciousness that was once considered the purview of a select few is now the fundamental reality out of which we all must operate if human life on the planet is to continue. This reminds me very much of many of our friends who would admire the life choices we made, ending their praise with: “When the world is going to end, we’ll all move in with you!” In other words, we admire what you do and how you do it, but not me unless I’m forced to. Well, if we care to leave our children’s children a beautiful and sustainable planet, the time has come that we are all forced to …

The Paschal Mystery and the divine Trinitarian community are THE relational and generative paradigm, patterns of Love in both the universe and deep in our soul, making the most deeply personal the most widely universal: life—death—life. Every living thing dies to itself in order to renew life & love.

In periods of painful spiritual dryness, I strive to emulate prairie plants who grow deep roots in order to find water. My spirit sings praise and thanks along with the morning song of birds and joined the pelicans as they soar on the wind currents over my house. Cloudbursts of tears in my heart resemble prairie storms on hot summer days. The labour-intensive and time-consuming tasks of daily living (hauling water, chopping wood and preserving food) indicate efforts needed to feed both body and soul. On days when my spirit matches the cold and dark of winter days, the simple task of gathering wood in the bush and sitting by a warm fire later on soothes my soul, like a child drawn on its mother’s lap after a stressful day. Times of spiritual stagnation find consolation in seeds that take forever to have God’s Life Force crack them open. When newness of life and the pulsating energy of spring leaps into my being, I smile from head to toe like the crocus or cactus blooming on a meadow barely awake from its winter sleep, eagerly waiting to be noticed and bring joy to someone’s heart.  Many a time dancing northern lights in a winter sky help keep the flame of hope and promise alive in my drooping spirit.  And on and on and on …

It is thus that I continue to grow still today into an ever-deeper and sacred intimacy with all living things, learning to surrender to Life itself in the moment – sometimes an easy, colourful and joyful dance, other times merely an intense yet unfulfilled and aching desire – unified by a loving and merciful Creator and by the stardust which makes us all part of all.

By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagine it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers. – Teilhard de Chardin

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What’s in a name?

One day my book editor told me that I’m affectionately called the “Hyphenated One” at his office. I sighed. Even after living in Canada for over thirty-five years, I still have to fight to keep my long name. I had a medical appointment recently. “Marie Ternier, please,” the receptionist called out in the waiting area. I didn’t recognize my name, and she called a second time. “Marie Ternier, please.” I got up. “The name is Marie-Louise, with a hyphen,” I said, “and Ternier-Gommers, with another hyphen: my married name first, Ternier, followed by my maiden name, Gommers. The order is Dutch. Computers hate my name, but truly, I’m never called Marie.” The receptionist barely took note of my speech. I went home and mused. What indeed is in a name?

“Marie-Louise Colletta Cornelia Josepha, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the priest likely said as he poured water over me at 3 days old in Tilburg, the Netherlands. While names are unique to each person they also connect us to our past: my middle names come from my father, my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother

But even though the hyphenated stuff is a real headache in this country, I could not part with it. Hyphenated names are very European, very French in fact, and not just when your name finds itself at the end of a line and needs to be cut in two. I grew up with Marie-Louise, I respond to Marie-Louise – esp. when pronounced the French way (why a Dutch girl should care about that is a story for another time). Pre-owned is fine, first-class is fine, even clear-headed is fine. But not names for some reason; somehow it is assumed that a name such as mine surely would have been shortened long before I could even say it myself.

Our name is very unique to us: “By name I have called you, by name I have saved you; by name you are mine, you are precious to me.” (lyrics based on Isaiah 43:1) Often parents wait to name their newborn until they’ve laid loving eyes on her/him, to make sure the name “fits.” Biblical names remain among the most popular and “durable” ones in every time and place, grounding a child into a rich and deep heritage.

For a name shapes our character and becomes integral to our identity. The fact that name–calling can cut so deeply into us (and I certainly had my fair share of that as a child) merely serves to illustrate even more how very personal our name is.

Scripture says that God knows us by name; Scripture also tells us that God’s name is as important as ours. I love the realization that God calls us by name. Several biblical figures who had a major encounter with God undergo a name change: Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Hadassah was known as Esther, Levi became Matthew, Saul was also known as Paul. When Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus in the garden but did not know it was him, she only recognized him when he called her name: “Mary.” In the monastic tradition it was customary to change one’s name as one made the life-long commitment to religious life. Initiation rites for young adolescents in aboriginal cultures involve being given a new name. Somehow our name is an intimate aspect of our identity before God and the world.

In the ancient world to know the name of something also denoted to gain a certain power over. Some of that is still true today: each one of us recognizes her/himself by their name. Addressing someone by their first or given name implies a certain familiarity and intimacy. Addressing someone by their last name implies a formal or distant relationship.

The most intimate name I know is Jesus, one who was named by the angel at conception: “You shall name him Emmanuel, meaning God-with-us” (hey, another hyphenated name:)). Jesus showed us in word and deed what it looks like to live to the fullest of our human potential in a God-like manner – fully human and fully divine. That is the deepest desire of my heart: to become all that God is calling me to become after the example of Jesus the Christ. No wonder St Paul recognized Jesus as deserving of the highest honour: “Therefore God hasWhatName1 highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. “ (Philippians 2:9—11)

So once in a while reflect on your name; recall how it has shaped who you are and how you live your life. And always remember God loves you and calls you by name, your first name. In fact, God has carved your name in his heart while he holds you close in the palm of his hand. As for me, I’m keeping my hyphens. This two-in-one name has shaped my character and my self-identity. l Besides, I wouldn’t want to risk arriving at heaven’s door and not recognize when I’m being called: Marie-Louise. If I’m being called that is.

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