Dear Still Water Friends,
This Thursday, after our meditation period, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our discussion on the fourth training. In the original trainings of the Buddha, the fourth training was about telling the truth, not deliberately lying. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his rewriting of the trainings, expanded the meaning, focusing on the good we can create when we speak:
Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. . . . I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations.
Thich Nhat Hanh has brought into the fourth training the spirit of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion. When we invoke the Bodhisattvas’ names, we say of him/her:
We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and open-heartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice. We will sit and listen without judging or reacting. We will sit and listen in order to understand. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.
This week I’ve been reading Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. The author, Gregory Boyle, is a Jesuit priest who has worked for 30 years in the barrios of Los Angeles. His book is about the project he started in his church, Homeboy Industries, which has offered jobs and job placements to thousands of young people who wanted more in their lives than their gangs could give. On another level, the book is about seeing the potential for good in people who have been deeply wounded and have acted badly. It is a book about loving speech and deep listening:
Once, after dealing with a particularly exasperating homie named Sharkey, I switch my strategy and decide to catch him in the act of doing the right thing. I can see I have been too harsh and exacting with him, and he is, after all, trying the best he can. I tell him how heroic he is and how the courage he now exhibits in transforming his life far surpasses the hollow ‘Bravery" of his barrio past. I tell him that he is a giant among men. I mean it. Sharkey seems to be thrown off balance by all this and silently stares at me. Then he says, "Damn, G … I’m gonna tattoo that on my heart."
Midway through the book, Boyle offers this pearl:
Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.
For me, that is an aspiration to carry into all my relationships. It is so easy to stand in judgment: you should have done it this way. It is much more difficult to have the patience and skill to elicit and open to the burdens of those who come into our lives. It is the work of Bodhisattvas to respond with awe and love. Boyle writes:
Compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about bringing them in toward yourself. If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate,” means the dismantling of barriers that exclude.
In our discussion this Thursday, we will share what we have each learned in our ongoing journeys from judgment to awe.
You are invited to be with us.
A excerpt from Tattoos on the Heart is below.
Please consider joining us on Friday – Sunday, April 16-18, for our Still Water Community Retreat, at the Charter Hall Retreat Center, Perryville, MD. Space in the lodge is limited, so if you wish to be in the lodge rather than bring a tent, please sign up soon.
From Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle
Though he’d run away from home at thirteen, I only met Andres at nineteen after he had overstayed his welcome in various houses around town. Running away had seemed like the only reasonable thing to do. His mom, seeing in Andres the picture of his father, the man who had walked out on her, funneled all of her rage and disdain right at this kid. He became this male Cinderella, slavishly mopping the floors and bathroom of the bar she owned and the small apartment they shared. She didn’t exactly abuse him. She tortured him. Putting cigarettes out on him, holding his head in the toilet until he nearly drowned. Andres was removed many times from the home by Child Protectors and just as routinely returned to her care.
Once he ran away, he aligned his misery with likely camaradas in a local gang – all hanging on for dear life and sharing the tight confines of their orphan island. When I met him, he was feeling the pressure to "move outta the homie’s pad."
We had a shelter for women and children at the time, Casa Miguel Pro, nestled atop the elementary school, in what was the Dolores Mission convent. We had an extra room, and I gave it to Andres. Before long, he was employed, someone had donated a "tore up ranfla," so he had wheels for work, and he generally began to thrive.
Andres was one of those interviewed by Mike Wallace. Since I was to do tertianship – a yearlong break of reflection, prayer, long retreat, and ministry required of all Jesuits before they take final vows – and leave for a time after my tour as pastor, Mike asks Andres, now twenty-one, "You know, Father Greg says you’re a success story. And he’s leaving. I mean, are you going to continue on this path of success after Father Greg leaves?" Before Andres can address the question, Wallace inexplicably hunkers closer to Andres, seeking some inside-track camaraderie he frankly hasn’t earned, and says, "You know, you"d really have to be an asshole not to continue on this path of success." Andres perks like a lion who hears someone coming. "What you call me?" Mike shifts in his metal folding chair like someone had just turned its heating element to high.
“Um, well, it’s just a figure of speech; I mean, I’m not calling you that. It’s just . . . well … ONE. . . would have to be an asshole . . .”
Andres is trembling at this point, his linebacker body wanting to go in eight directions at once. "There is only one person who can call me that … and that’s Father Greg … not my family, not even my homies … but certainly not some rich white boy like you." Andres rips the microphone off his shirt and pounds his way to the side exit of the church where the interview was taking place. Mike’s nervous aides pounce on my office. "Andres is mad." When I locate him, he won’t let his ire be tamed. "I was gonna toss him up, G. I was gonna. . . straight out … toss him up." Let’s face it, who among us hasn’t wanted to "toss up" Mike Wallace?
Andres was alive, vibrant, and thriving as never before, and for the first time ever, there was a lightness to his being. He was proud of himself.
One day we bump into each other in the church parking lot.
"Ya know, I’m thinkin’a callin’ my jefita."
"You sure?" I caution. After all, it had been more than five years since he had spoken with her.
"Well, yeah," he says, "I mean, she is the only mom I got."
I be-my-guest him toward my office, and I leave him. Not five minutes later, Andres is standing by my side again, looking stricken. This is what the woman who brought Andres into the world chose to say to her son, after not having spoken with or seen him for more than five years. This and only this.
“Tu eres basura." (You are garbage.)
Now, I’m stricken, barely able to hollow out a place in my own heart for such a thing as this. Andres’s eyes glisten in the midday sun.
“You didn’t believe her, did you?”
“Nah … I forgave her.”
Years and years later, Andres plops in one of the chairs in my office, car in the shop (he’d been through many vehicles since that first bucket) and he’s bussing it. He wanted to stop by and kick it before taking the bus home to his simple apartment. I offer to drive him home to Montebello.
"Would you mind, G, if we can swing by Ralph’s so I can get some stuff? I mean, since I got a ride and all."
We pull into Ralph’s, and I watch, always several steps behind, as Andres grabs a shopping cart and commandeers it down aisles of produce and canned goods. When I catch up with him, he says, "Tuesdays are the sales – that’s the day to shop." I’m astonished at his assurance and utter familiarity with this place. He knows where to go. He knows what to get. He turns, I’m out of breath keeping up. He’s in a confiding mood.
"Ya know, ya gotta be very careful in these big supermarkets."
"You do?" I say, leaning in to catch his drift.
"Oh, hell yeah."
Andres sizes up the aisle to see if there are spies. “It’s that elevator music they be playing.” He’s whispering and pointing above. “It confuses you. Ya buy shit you don’t need.”
Home sweet home in his own skin. A man who has decided to walk in his own footsteps. God eternally satisfied with all his sacredness. Andres, a temple on high, a holy of holies, right there, on aisle 5.