Women Aboard by George Merrill

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The following list was circulated this year in a British Government report. It appeared in a periodical I received as an alumnus of Yale Divinity School. I think it’s accurate to say that Yale Divinity School is liberal in both its theology and its politics. The list was comprised from a survey of businesses that were requested to offer reasons why male executives did not offer women seats on prestigious boards. The businesses surveyed included CEO’s and other leaders of Britain’s Financial Times Stock Exchange.

The list has earned the reputation at Yale, in Britain, and far beyond as “a survey list of the worst reasons given for not appointing women to their boards

Here’s the list:

1) The good women have already been snapped up.
2) We have one already.
3) There aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board – the issues covered are extremely complex.
4) Most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board.
5) Shareholders just aren’t interested in the make-up of the board, so why should we.
6) My other colleagues wouldn’t want to appoint a woman on our board.
7) All the ‘good women’ woman already on the board, so we are done – it’s someone else’s turn.
8) There aren’t any vacancies at the moment – if there were I’d think about appointing a woman.
9) We need to build a pipeline from the bottom – there just aren’t enough senior women in this sector.
10) I just can’t appoint a woman because I want to.

Over the years, the eventual ordination of women in the Episcopal and Anglican churches followed a similar trajectory of resistance that seating women on businesses did. Those opposed to the ordination of women, first as priests and then as bishops, argued something like this.

1)  Jesus’ disciples were all men so it wouldn’t be right to ordain women
2) Ordained ministry in the church has not changed for 2000 years.
3) Such a big change should not be undertaken except for the consent of the entire church.
4) It’s not fair on those who have given their whole lives to the church to find the church moving away from them.
5) We are working hard to grow closer to other churches. Such a change would upset them.
6) Bible uses male imagery of Father and Son. It gives males a distinctive leadership role.
7) The father is the head of the family. Male priests and bishops are the fathers of the church.
8) We made the change twenty years ago and women haven’t done any good.
9) If we change things we can’t be sure of innovation.
10) Male and female are complimentary. It is important to not confuse distinctions.

These arguments for exclusion of women in todays’ institutions seem arcane if not blatantly sexist. In the spirit of full disclosure, I once entertained similar concerns about the ordination of women. As a young priest the idea of ordaining female priests was in its seminal stage (no pun intended) and I have to confess that in the male dominated church of history in which I grew up, the idea of ordained women didn’t seem right to me. Why? I didn’t catch on to this right away but it was because as a young man, I was finding the affirmation I needed for my male identity in this organization consisting of exclusively male leadership. It imputed authority and status to me. I wish I could say my sensibilities were more noble and informed, or that I was moved by the Holy Spirt but in this matter. I was not. It was just one more variation in the way male egos can cling to their prerogatives, resisting a world that changes the rules we once have lived, navigated and finally institutionalized.

I’ve been thinking about these arguments against the inclusion of women in both secular and religious institutions. I’ve concluded that the case against their inclusion is thin, a stretch, even a plea. Trying to marshal arguments to support exclusion never really makes the case since in both instances we are not talking about the skill and the vision any women might bring or not bring to the board or the church: we see instead an attempt to legitimize and dignify what is basically male anxiety; I’d suggest it’s the kind of anxiety older brothers feel when facing the reality that a new baby sister has become a part of my household. Before she was born big brother had the whole place to himself. He had been the whole enchilada, now, with her arrival, only half. My guess is that the anxiety was for me and other men, more about losing status than having colleagues whom God didn’t trust or weren’t up the job.

An earthy side addendum to this matter. When I was a young parish priest, almost all clergy were male. Preceding services clergy met in the sacristy to vest. I those days, the clergy I worked with were smokers. There was a distinctive smell in the sacristy. Many of us sweated during services and so the slight odor of male perspiration pervaded the sacristy along with the residue of cigarette smoke.

Today men and women clergy vest together before services. The locker room ambience I once associated with my high calling to lead services is a thing of the past. Smoking is not universal as the way it was then. There is in today’s sacristies instead, the more delicate scent of women who are also called to do the Lord’s work.

What can I say? Ordained leadership is just not a guy thing anymore.

We’re all the better for it. Church sacristies smell nicer, too.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

The Last Word by George Merrill

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I will soon have lived four score and four years. I only started reading the obituaries about five years ago. Friends much my junior have been reading them for years. I suppose I felt it was time for me to learn something about what people who were dead had thought about themselves when they were not dead (if the deceased wrote the obituary beforehand – not uncommon) or what relatives (having composed it post mortem) were thinking about the deceased while he or she was still among the living.

However, if you want an in-depth profile of anyone, an obituary is not the place to look. I say that sympathetically.  Decency dictates that this is not the time for being critical but also, practically speaking, it’s best to let bygones be bygones since nothing can come of it anyway now that the curtain has fallen on the final act. No one is as perfect as they’re portrayed in an obituary or a eulogy. On the other hand, no one can, in just a few paragraphs sketch the complexities of an entire lifetime.

I’ve wondered about obituaries. The other day, when I decided I would write my own, my mixed feelings surprised me.

However, instead of my obituary, I first went gently into that dark night by planning my own funeral service. I pinned it down to specifics:  poems, scripture reading, prayers, hymns and music that I would like to have read, sung or played. That seemed less intimidating than writing my obit. Deciding on the particulars to include was an eye opener: just what was the appropriate material to express my personal feelings? What was I feeling specifically about my own death? Did I really want to know? What would I say now that I had the last word?

This is complicated; conventional wisdom dictates that the funeral or the ‘celebration of life’ is offered for the living, not the dead. Yet here I am planning something custom designed to my own peculiar tastes with little thought to the inclinations of those who may show up. It flips the occasion around. It makes the funeral all about me even though we say it’s supposed to be all about them.

An exercise like this may surface character deficits in ourselves we may not like. I drifted off on a tangent thinking who’d be at my funeral. Then I felt angry at the ones I decided wouldn’t, but whom I thought ought to be there. I was not doing this thing right.

In designing this solemn occasion, my narcissism surfaced with a vengeance. There it was, alive and well and ready to be snatched away, along with me, by the jaws of death.

Back to the drawing board. Just what is an obituary, anyway? What is it supposed to be about?

I conscientiously read the obituaries in a couple of papers printed in a week’s time. I looked for the common thread that ran through them. The announcement of a death was of course the primary purpose, a way to inform those in the community who’d once been part of the deceased’s life that this person was gone.

Almost all the obits included when and where the death occurred. It listed the deceased’s relatives. Some obits were brief statements notifying the death, but little information beyond that. They noted where services were being held and some indicating where memorial gifts could be sent.

Basic biographical material appeared, some including place of origin, education and employment.

I noticed two kinds of obits. One described the deceased’s career in detail and the contributions to the community. Others were more about the interests and activities that the deceased enjoyed, like art or gardening, fishing and hunting. For those who had high profile careers, the obit described their career at some length.

A few expressed an understanding of death in religious terms like, “was called home” or “went to the Lord.” “Passing away” or “departing this life” were the prevailing ways in which the death was described. “After a lingering illness” suggested that the dying had been a long process and hinted at the suffering endured by all involved. Several obits invited readers to share memories of the deceased and email them to the family.

How can anyone describe an entire life, including what that life meant to others, in the brief paragraphs of an obituary? There’s no way. At best, we can only allude to it.

In that regard, I noticed that in describing the deceased, two words appeared in several obituaries: the words, loving, and devoted. The words identified a particular quality of relationship to the deceased that the authors of the obituary wished to share with others. The appearance of those words created a tone, although because of the limits of an obit, in what ways they were devoted and loving were never developed.

When I considered how I would write my obit, I own, to my embarrassment, that I first thought of documenting my career accomplishments, professional and literary as the focus. I didn’t catch on right away what this implied about me and my life. Then it hit me: I was saying to the world, look at all I’ve done, or putting it differently, I am what I do or what I did.

I didn’t like what I was thinking.

Jack Kornfield, in his spiritual classic, A Path with Heart, begins the book by posing the question to readers, “Did I love Well?”

“Even the most exalted states and the most exceptional spiritual accomplishments are unimportant if we cannot be happy in the most basic and ordinary ways, if we cannot touch one another and the life we’ve been given, with our hearts,” Kornfield adds.

The challenge Kornfield poses in his book is to understand our lives not as status earned and achievements won, but as a way of being. Being devoted and loving aren’t achievements, but more like attitudes, and when seen over the full spectrum of a life, are all that matter at the end of the day. People who work with the dying document this over and over in the stories they hear from patients and relatives. One of the most common laments or regrets heard is that “I never said to this or that person how much I loved them, or conversely, never thanked them for the love they offered me.”

I think Kornfield captures the essence of our lives: that we live life to the fullest when touching one another and touching the life we have been given, with our hearts.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Op-Ed: Pyrrhic Victory by George Merrill

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An instructive piece of history.

Around 280 BC, Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus was asked by the people of Tarentum in southern Italy to help them in their war with the Roman Republic.

He had a strong army fortified by war elephants ( Romans were not experienced facing them), Pyrrhus enjoyed initial success against the Roman legions, but suffered heavy losses even in these victories. Pyrrhus said after the second battle of the war, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” He could not call up more men from home and his allies in Italy were becoming indifferent. The Romans, by contrast, had extensive manpower and could replenish their legions even if their forces were depleted in many battles, thus, a Pyrrhic victory.

A Pyrrhic victory, then, is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. Someone who wins a Pyrrhic victory has also taken a heavy toll that negates any true sense of achievement. Marshalling elephants for the cause may win you the battle but lose your war.

Judge Kavanagh’s recent appointment to the Supreme Court was a Pyrrhic Victory.

I may be alone in this thought but the political circumstances surrounding the recent controversy over Judge Kavanagh’s appointment seemed centered less on justice and more on power. The exchanges exposed our social confusion over issues of gender relationships, and particularly male dominance. The elephant in the middle of the room was about how uses of power play out in gender relationships in society in general, and in particular, politics. Are women being accorded the same social and professional privileges as men? Can government dictate how a woman uses her body? Are women heard or marginalized? Do men bully women?

In a remarkable statement from our president, in the heat of the debate, he framed Dr. Ford’s testimony as another instance of how women falsely accuse men and ruin their careers. “It’s a scary time for young men in America,” the president solemnly lamented, claiming that he, too, had been victimized.

Throughout the entire hearing, sex was more central to the exchanges than justice. In one way or another, human sexuality was on everyone’s mind. The irony is how, in discussing delicate interpersonal matters that confuse us most and that we understand least, the conversation can become so strident.

From the beginning the hearings were a no win for Kavanaugh and Ford. Still, skilled statecraft and a measure of graciousness in the proceedings could have mitigated some of the residual vitriol.

I think there’s a silver lining here. My hope is that caring Americans will be sufficiently embarrassed by this national tragedy to get to the polls and vote, but will vote for the helpers, the people who care for us and for the country and who offer a vision, not a sound bite. We have an encouraging slate of newcomers as well as seasoned veterans who really want to help, who want to be servant leaders and are asking as for the chance.

I use the world ‘helpers’ from a piece I read years ago. It came right from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood where he spoke to the country in the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedy, one of the ugliest episodes of violence we’ve experienced. He spoke comfort to millions of children but to adults as well. He cited how he had been taught that when something terrible happens, and you suddenly feel afraid and alone, “Look for the helpers,” he said, “you will always find people helping.” It may seem a kind of soft image to invoke discussing the leadership we so desperately need, but I like it. A servant leader can really care for his constituents without being hateful.

What was notable about Mr. Rogers, was how he addressed the fears all children have; indeed, all adults have, the dark fear of violence and hatred. How powerful kindness and gentleness can be when it speaks unflinchingly to what is ugly, with compassion for others and without hate or blame.

Find the helpers and then go to the polls and vote for them. They’re ready to help and to serve.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

The Right Time by George Merrill

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Ever think that if your parents and mine hadn’t bonded just when they did – to the split second, and maybe even nanosecond– neither of us would be here at the same time? You wouldn’t be reading this column and I wouldn’t have written it. You and I have come a long way just to be here together, today.

Following author Bill Bryson’s fascinating thought about generativity even further, if we went back in time, perhaps to the landing of the Mayflower, you and I would have had no less than 16, 384 ancestors “earnestly exchanging genetic material in a way that would eventually and miraculously, result in you (and me.)”

Even after we’re gone, we’re not finished. We’ve left something behind that is in the process of becoming. It will be realized at the right time.

Although she’s long gone, I often think of my mother. I have one recollection that stands out in my mind and although it is not exclusively about my mother as such, it’s one of the images that speaks obliquely to me about the mystery of generations, and what we have inherited that our ancestors wanted us to have. We certainly know they wanted us to have life, but beyond that it’s hard to discern. There are so many people involved, so may dreams, so many aspirations, so many eons. It takes time.

I recall sitting on the stairs at the far end of the living room in the Tudor style house where I grew up. I’m maybe eight or nine. I’m just home from school. It’s late afternoon. There’s a large, small paned bay window opposite the stairs with a southwest exposure. In the afternoon, the sun streams through it illuminating the room and particularly the baby grand piano that’s sits by it. My sister is playing. She plays well.

I remember three of the classics she would play; there was a Chopin etude, emphatic and almost bombastic although hauntingly melodic. Then she would play one of the Bach inventions, which tripped along methodically with its measured cadence, like the ticking of a metronome. Then the musical mood would shift to become breezy and playful as she played Percy Granger’s Country Gardens. It’s strange how we remember things and how over time we even alter or add to the recollections something that originally was not there. Nevertheless, it becomes a permanent part of the entire mental image and a reflection of how, with time, we sculpt our experiences by shaping and reshaping them. The core of the memory remains. It seemed to me in retrospect, that as the sunlight shone through the window it made my sister appear luminescent, as if she were glowing from within. Can music illuminate?

My sister was the only one in the family to take piano lessons and to stick with them until she left for nursing school and was married.

My mother was eager for me to take piano lessons. I was sent to Miss Lissenden to have instruction. Miss Lissenden was nice to me and patient, but there was something about the art of playing a piano that I just couldn’t get. I loved music and had an ear for classical music but I think I was too impatient at the time to stick with practicing long enough to see results. I did get as far as Moonlight Sonata, but I would have to concede that playing chopsticks was the height of my achievement. I played chopsticks well because it was simple and required nothing of me.

I sensed it was important to my mother to have one of her children play the piano. Although I knew she didn’t play any instrument, I was aware she had great interest and love for classical music. She took us to concerts. If I had just said to her that I really didn’t like taking lessons I know she would have accepted it without a fuss. I did not want to disappoint her by saying directly I wanted to stop. I grew passively aggressive instead, torpedoing my musical career by not practicing and missing scheduled lessons. The whole matter died a quiet and natural death.
I regret it now.

I know how much pleasure mastering an art such as the piano can bring to the performer as well as the listener. I also know I disappointed my mother because having a pianist in the family was one of her dreams. My sister abandoned the piano shortly after she left for nursing, my brother had no interest whatsoever, so her dream ended with us, or so I thought.

There’s a twist, however. I am persuaded now that there is a fullness of time when the genes flow down from generation to generation, from person to person until a certain genetic configuration is achieved. At that moment, some personal gift or a skill emerges in a family like the flower that blooms in deserts to appear as if from nowhere. The process, however, had been in the works during the long line of our family evolutions.

My grandson Patrick expressed an early interest in music. When he visited our house as a young boy he would go to the piano and with one finger play some tunes he liked or hymns he recalled hearing in church. What began as a child’s diversion eventually grew into a passion. He attended Peabody Institute, studied piano and settled on the harpsichord as his instrument of choice. Patrick has performed in local and international competitions.

I have often thought that his interest in music, and ultimately his graduating from Peabody and working on his doctorate in harpsichord was the consummation of an historical family dream of a musical career, brewing in the family for heaven knows how long and finally coming into its own.

It happens when it happens.

On one occasion, I shared my idea with my grandson. He listened to me patiently, even indulgently the way people do as they humor someone whom they believe means well but thankfully is harmless.

Nevertheless, I hold resolutely to this thought. It’s my understanding of evolution, of destiny, of that long process of becoming which has characterized our universe.

The exciting part is being there when a becoming of some particular is realized, and being a witness to the fullness of it.

“Someday,” writes the celebrated priest and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, “after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

At the right time, I believe that our world will arrive at its collective destiny. It will take a long time and lots of practice, the way becoming coming a concert pianist does.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

 

Crackpot by George Merrill

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There’s a story about a small boy. He asks his mother to take him to the park. She says yes. Hand in hand they walk around the lake until the boy stops, excitedly telling his mother to look out on the lake. “See mommy, see all the gooses.” Mom looks at her son fondly and says, “Oh, they are not gooses, they’re geese.” The boy looks bewildered. He replies, “They sure look like gooses to me.”

This is one of those ‘twinkle in the eye’ tales so characteristic of the ebullient Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He has seen so much suffering, remains irrepressibly optimistic, and has facilitated so much healing in the world. Spirituality and humor make inspired companions.

His stories have a light touch. They speak to the depths of the human experience – in this case, how easy it is to miss the point by being too literal. The joy the boy felt in the discovery of the ‘gooses’ was what his exclamation was about, not the name they were called. I assume the mother never found out just what it was about the “gooses” that excited her son.

He received a grammar lesson instead. A missed opportunity

I hold the Archbishop in the same high esteem as I do Pope Francis. In a world where good men are becoming harder to find, these two remain a blessing to the world. I’d include the Dalai Lama among them and I know there are scores of others whose goodness I believe is keeping the world from destroying itself. There are many such good men and women out there, sowing hope and possibility. They are like flowers that bloom and cover the desert in fragrance. Few people even know how radiant they are.

Religion has been stuck in literalism for centuries, where doctrinal purity and correctness has been substituted for cultivating and searching matters of the spirit and of the heart. Religious pretensions to possessing the truth have not served well. The truth cannot be possessed; it can only be discovered and lived. Slavish devotion to orthodoxies of one kind or another trivialize the hope that lies inherent in an inspirational religious experience. We still have the parables. I can always depend on them. Parables have helped me get past the mediocre and mundane when I need inspiration and hope.

I’m thinking of the parables that have sustained our spirits throughout history. In one sense, the parable keeps us from getting lost in peripheral matters while it speaks to the heart of our human condition. As the old adage for writers goes; parables don’t tell, they show.

Parables offer hope. Hope is the mother of all possibilities and seems in short supply particularly among the young. Self- hatred is frequently manifest in drug usage and teen suicide. Psychologist Jennifer Powell-Lunder believes low self-esteem among teens is epidemic and viral; it seems to be spreading.

Teens are exquisitely sensitive to body image, how they look, or how they think they look. It’s often the place where despair takes root. Some of this is encouraged by the antiseptic and cosmetic images society promotes of its pretty people, the glamor of celebrity stars, and winners of one kind or another. In short, the social images defining men and women are pure fabrications. There’s nothing solid on which to build a hope. And, when a young person knows he or she has limitations, that they are not unblemished, they feel isolated and deformed. Our young people are so vulnerable trying to live the lies promoted by a flawed model of our humanity. To attempt to live it always leads to heart ache and a dead end. Tragically, it may lead to a literal dead end.

Of all Christianity’s best kept secrets, (well not a secret, exactly, we just keep forgetting it) is that we are all flawed, I mean, like, everyone. If we can fully embrace this as a fact, I am convinced we will be much kinder to our flawed brothers and sisters and to the flaws in ourselves.

The Buddhists have a grand parable about this very thing and it doesn’t feel preachy or patronizing, but liberating and hopeful. There’s something about it that takes me to a better place.

An old Chinese woman goes down to the river every day for water. She carries two pots, each one on the ends of a bamboo pole she straddles across her shoulders. The one pot is cracked, the other perfect so that when she returns from the river, she has one full pot and the other half filled with water. The perfect pot was proud all the time while the cracked pot felt inferior and broken. After many days of retrieving water the cracked pot finally said to the old woman: “I am so ashamed of myself because my side causes water to leak on the way back to your house.”

The old woman replies, “Didn’t you notice there are flowers on your side of the path. That’s because I’ve always known about your flaw so I planted seeds on your side of the path so that every day while we walk back, you will water them. If you were not the way you are there would not be these beautiful flowers that grace our path as we make our daily trek down and back from the river.”

In her youth, teacher/writer Alama Palm, was in a desperate place. She felt hopeless and began considering suicide. Finally, after struggling for several years, with help she worked her way out of the abyss. She says of her story: “Life is not an easy journey for many of us, however one thing I know with all my heart and mind, if we continue to hope there is always a way through.” Then she says this: “And when you get though you will be in a perfect place to help someone else. You will also get the opportunity to see your life play out the way it’s meant to.” I understood her to mean that as she grew in hope, she found herself sharing hope with others. Even more than that, she discovered meaning for her life.

I believe that God, painfully aware of our flaws, works around them as much as we’ll allow. If we own our faults, half of God’s struggle to put us back on the path is accomplished. Our humility makes his job much easier.

Hope is the key; hope is reciprocal. When you have it, you give it to others. When you need it, you get it back?

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

For Land’s Sake by George Merrill

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A day or so after the hurricane struck the Carolinas, I sat on my porch. It was a relentlessly hot Maryland day, without of hint of breeze, and the air was as dense with moisture as a sauna. Our porch overlooks a small cove at the head of Broad Creek. It’s a popular feeding spot for blue herons.

I saw a heron wading in the shallows. He was stalking something. He paced slowly with furtive steps that bespoke his intent to surprise his prey. The heron did surprise a hapless critter. He stopped pacing, brought his head up and back, and with lightning speed, thrust his bill forward like a rapier, snatching a sizeable crab from the water. How could he ingest it? How could the shell’s jagged edges pass though his long skinny neck into his stomach? I couldn’t imagine. In minutes, he’d swallowed the crab. I couldn’t believe he ate the whole thing.

I live near the water. Too close. I often wonder whether I belong here. The mystique of tidewater is alluring, but fragile. There’s the pungent smell of Sulphur that the marshes exude, and the parade of wildlife I see from my studio window: herons, deer, turkeys, otters, loons, buzzards and eagles. Turtles lay eggs in the driveway. There are ospreys, seagulls, raccoons all going about their daily routines except for the owls and raccoons; they prefer the night shift.

I don’t know just how long I sat watching the heron feed. I realized that the heron had commanded my full attention. For those several minutes I was wholly absorbed, enthralled. My entire attention was fixed on the bird while something else was happening to me at the same time; I was keenly alert and paying attention in a way that I rarely do, not because I decided I would, but simply because the heron seized my imagination. To say it was like seeing some creature from another world would be accurate. The heron was just that. The heron shares all the requisites for life on this earth just as I do, but his world is far beyond my ken; he seems exotic to me and, in that moment in the shallows of the creek, I was almost lifted out of myself by becoming fully conscious of another living creature that was my geographic neighbor.

The cradle of life on the planet began with and is sustained by the world’s wetlands. Moses may have reached the mountain top, but he was launched from the marshes.

Unfortunately, a beautiful land is an invitation to live there. With the large metropolitan centers within one and a half to three hours driving time to the Shore, an elderly population retiring and wanting to live their last days in an idyllic setting leaves the Delmarva a sitting duck for what’s euphemistically referred to as “development.” Development is an economic concept and has no respect for the characteristics of land other than as a commodity to be bought and sold. We know little of land’s needs, the meaning of its habits and what role weather plays in the cycles of its life.

Like Adam and Eve, we’re complicit in our own expulsion from this global garden of extraordinary beauty. We ate of the forbidden tree of knowledge and learned enough to profit from the fruits of the garden by practicing density development even while destroying it by the same means. We want the glories of the garden to inhabit it again, but are woefully ignorant of the land’s integrity, that is, what rights properly belong to the land as we plan to occupy it.

There are environmental saints in history, prophets speaking for the earth. They give our earth a voice. These saints have gained notice, but corporations have muffled their voices. John Muir, the preeminent American ecologist founded the Sierra Club as one way to provide nature with advocacy. He once said, “No synonym for God is so perfect as beauty.”

Rachel Carson documented the toxic effects of pesticides on the ecological food chain. The world is interconnected physically as it is spiritually. Its essential unity is undisputable.

Fourteenth century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: “Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is the word of God.”

The American visionary of wilderness, Aldo Leopold, wrote of the earth as though it were a symphony.

Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote this about listening to rain: “. . . the talk it makes by itself all over the ridges and the talk of the watercourse everywhere in the hollows . . . as long as it talks, I am going to listen.”

Walt Whitman wrote, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.”

There’s far more to the earth than lots of dirt.

I’ve been thinking about the integrity of land after learning about the effects of the hurricanes in the Carolinas. Building homes on land that will be predictably inundated by water at one time or another is a failure to recognize the appropriate boundaries of land use. I know my house should never have been built so near the creek’s edge. Erecting structures so close fails to recognize that there is a natural rhythm between land and water that includes what we call periodic flooding, but I suspect it’s a form of ecological purification, a kind of realignment of natural boundaries as they are reconfigured by wind and weather. To ignore those boundaries violates the land and we suffer as a result.

It’s one more way we try to coerce nature into conforming to our will and not accommodating to hers.

And what about herons during hurricanes? They hunker down until it blows over. Then they pick up and nest nearby. They own nothing. They just live on the land . . . gently.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

On Having Opinions by George Merrill

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I’ve been thinking about opinions, lately. I’ve noticed how time has altered many of my own.

If we have nothing else in life, we have opinions, hundreds if not thousands of them. Sharing our opinions is one of the ways that we affiliate with one another, get fresh perspectives, gain a feeling of the personality we may be dealing with, or just catching up.   Take a dinner party; there will be typically more opinions expressed around the table than there is food on it. If you are unfortunate, you will have been seated next to a person who is opinionated. Such people don’t just have opinions, they have answers. They have answers for questions you’ve never asked or even more for some you’ve never even considered. They never entertain questions of their own that indicate they have any doubts. I’ve found such people possess the remarkable ability to hold court nonstop while showing no physical signs that indicate they have ever taken a breath.

Newspapers and magazines welcome our opinions. They thrive on them. The press sets aside space for readers to text their opinions on just about anything. Opinions are also heard on the air and seen on TV regularly. Politics is particularly popular in opinion pieces. Since politics occupy such a significant place in our common lives, it’s a subject about which almost everyone has an opinion and, I would add, for at least the average citizen like me, marginal knowledge of how it all works.

Of the many blessings of American democracy, one is that we are not expected to actually know anything about the opinions we express, and particularly the issues where politics and religion are concerned. Has not folk wisdom warned us regularly not to discuss religion or politics in polite society? It has always been regarded as perilous terrain: abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Years ago, I remember a couple came to my office seeking help for their marriage. Their complaint: All we can talk about any more is religion and politics. Although I remained cautiously hopeful, their complaint did not suggest an encouraging prognosis for a happy reconciliation.

I have been writing essays since 2002. I have written op-ed pieces in righteous anger only later to cringe when some new data appeared which made it clear to me that I had only a minimal grasp of the complexities expressed in my rant; I’d gone off half-cocked. I must confess there is a kind of fleeting intoxication that occurs, especially if the opinion – at least while I’m expressing it – is as right as rain. The need to be right can be hazardous to our health.

The kind of opinions being expressed can often be identified by the tone and the volume by which they are delivered. Opinions that share general observations are delivered in well-modulated tones that are collegial and inviting. If the opinions being shared are in the service of correcting what somebody sees as my misguided opinion, or trying in some way to win a point, the volume steadily rises while the tone loses any lyrical quality and grows increasingly dissonant.  

Anyone who has raised children, gone through their adolescent years and survived to tell the story, knows that being right has limited value in maintaining a happy family. This truism has found expression in the playful quip: Would you rather be right or stay married? The point here is that there are some things that are critical for our ongoing happiness and being right is rarely one of them.

Not long ago among the letters to the editors in the Star Democrat, there appeared a heated exchange of opinions on whether trickle-down economics works. For a few days, letters shot back and forth as each delivered his opinion with the measured authority and profound conviction. One letter explained that the policy was a success during the Regan era, while marshaling facts and figures to prove it. Another opinion piece quoted facts and figures that demonstrated how it had clearly not succeeded. Who knows the truth of the matter? We are so often left only with opinions, some interesting, some tedious, each defended fiercely, eloquently documented, and at the end of the day, hardly any are reconcilable.

It is both a blessing and a curse in how differently we can see the same things.

I do not propose that any of us should refrain from expressing opinions.  I do suggest that the wise treat their opinions tentatively, the way I once plotted courses during my sailing days. In determining the course, I chose to follow. I’d remain alert to any changes in the atmosphere that may indicate that maintaining my present course will be hazardous. In exchanging opinions without creating a storm and for safe sailing, Miss Manners and Bowditch’s, American Practical Navigator, are a must read.

Opinions, should have an element of flexibility and never be doggedly clung to as if they are eternal. Change is at the heart of all existence.

An old tale tells of the student who went to his meditation teacher and said, “My meditation is horrible! I feel distracted; I can’t focus, I’m constantly falling asleep. It’s just horrible!” “It will pass,” the teacher said. A week later, the student came back to his teacher. “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so focused, so peaceful!” “It will pass,” the teacher replied.

Time and experience, if our minds remain pliable, are supposed to change our opinions and if not, at least modify them for no other reason that everything is changing. An inability to change them suggests a kind of psycho-spiritual paralysis, or worse still, that rigor mortis has finally set in. American poet, James Russel Lowell, said of such intransigent folk: “The foolish and the dead alone never change their opinion.”

It’s really ok to change our minds.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

The Eye Of The Needle by George Merrill

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Confucius, the story goes, once dreamt he was visiting the damned who’d been consigned to Hell. But Hell was a beautiful banquet room, with all the damned sitting around a table piled high with delectable foods. These poor souls were allowed to eat anything they liked, but they had to use chopsticks, and the chopsticks were five-feet long. The damned were starving, staring despondently at the uneaten food before them knowing that even with all eternity in which to solve the problem, it could not be done.

Then, Confucius was taken to Heaven to see those accommodations. It was an identical banquet hall, with a table full of delicious food. The people seated around the table, however, were happy and well fed, but they, too, had to obey the same rule. The food could only be eaten with chopsticks that are five-feet long. The blest were blessed because they had learned to use the same chopsticks, not to feed themselves, but to feed one another.

For many years we have been close friends with two Roman Catholic missionaries. They are, a nun and priest, who belong to a missionary order known as the Maryknolls. They have traveled extensively serving the needs of many disenfranchised people in the third world. They were witnesses to the countries living with poverty and political oppression. The level of deprivation in which many inhabitants in those countries lived was heart rending.

Our friends would tell us story after story about how the indigenous people invited them into their squalid shacks to offer them shelter, food and water, all of which the natives had little to spare. But it was how they offered hospitality that was so moving. They gave no evidence that they were doing this begrudgingly and even though they gave from their scarcity, you’d never know it. They gave willingly and with lots of warmth and laughter. My missionary friends had repeatedly been the recipients of one of the most ancient virtues in the history of the human race, the virtue of hospitality. As the poor extended their hospitality to their guests, it was apparent they were having fun doing it. It’s an odd thing that by surrendering what little they had, the act of giving away satisfied some primal need. It’s a timeless truth, but it seems that it’s harder for some privileged individuals to experience this joy in giving. Many seem mostly invested in protecting their assets and making sure they increase.

Jesus spoke about the mire that the wealthy and privileged get caught in: “Again I say to you it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Does amassing great wealth necessarily poison the soul of its beneficiary? It depends on the character of the beneficiary. I do think that there are millionaire men and women of character who see their wealth an opportunity to do for others, no, maybe even more than that; they see their wealth as an obligation to do for others. I suspect the character of the successful millionaire is more the issue than the amount of the wealth he or she has accrued. I would imagine Warren Buffet, Bill and Melinda Gates, would probably be as gracious if they had only little as they are with plenty.

I find Confucius’ Heaven and Hell allegory instructive, specifically in how it speaks to question of how we regard our responsibility to others. In the allegory, I notice Hell is not defined by how much food is available for its inhabitants, or by how little; it’s defined by the way inhabitants in each realm think of and use the resources they have in relationship to each other. In Hell, the residents are concerned mostly about how to feed themselves with no apparent interest in the needs of any others around the table. In Heaven, everyone is engaged in taking care of each other and not only are they well fed, they are happy.

Is it then, more blessed to give than to receive? Our pastor, just before the offertory, invites us to say those words with him. Most everyone joins in, but who knows who may feel that way. It’s hard to tell how anyone deals with such paradoxical issues from the outside looking in, especially where one’s economic worth is one the table. Putting money where the mouth is, has always been be a defining issue of character.

Apparently, in Biblical times, in Damascus and in Jerusalem, there were gates known as The Eye of the Needle. Because they had narrow passages and the rocky paths, getting a camel through the portals loaded with goods was challenging, if not impossible.

One interpretation of the Jesus saying is that the merchant would have to unload all the goods first for the camel to make passage to the other side of the gate. Would that mean that if the man was able to get the unencumbered camel through the gate, on the other side could he then reload the camel with the goods, like at the airport when we get our carryon back after going through security?

Personally, I believe that Jesus was playing hardball on this one. I also say that because as almost everyone knows, you may leave what’s left of your bundle to the kids but there’s no way you’re taking any of it with you.

I do not know if this is a fact, but I’ve wondered whether as we get older, we’re more aware that we’re not taking anything where we’re going and so we become more charitable with our resources than we might have been in our youth. There’s an optimum time in life when shedding our acquisitions feels even better than the excitement we had when we first acquired them.

“As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good to all peoples,” as Paul writes in Galatians.

It is more blessed to give than to receive.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

A Zen Moment by George Merrill

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According to a Zen parable, a martial arts student goes to a master warrior and earnestly asks: “I am devoted to studying your martial arts system. How long will it take me to accomplish the mastery of it? The teacher thinks for a moment and replies, “Maybe ten years.”

The student is disappointed. “Ten years?” he mutters impatiently. But I need to master it much faster than that. Look, I will work very hard, and I will practice ten or twelve hours every day, even more if I must. If I can do that, how long will it take, then?

The teacher replies, “Twenty years.”

Today we live at breakneck speeds. We’re losing one of life’s fundamental skills: patience.

These days, waiting for almost anything, is considered a personal insult. Amazon was once the name of a legendary tribe of female warriors. Today, Amazon is the iconic symbol for speed. As a Prime member, you can order just about anything you want with a guaranteed delivery 48 hours.

Since I bought a Kindle, I must confess I have enjoyed instant delivery. Never before have I learned about a book that I’d love to read only to have it in my hand moments later. I’ll search the title on Amazon and have it delivered to me with one click, ready to read. Google and Safari offer me instant access to dates and facts that in days of yore would have involved trips to library and hours of research.

Some blessings we enjoy often have darker sides.

Speed is our contemporary epidemic. I believe we’re addicted.

Even romance, something which we used to cultivate with time and patience, is now available 24/7 on the net. With apps like Tinder, Grindr and JSwipe, there are fifty million romantic candidates right there at the keyboard, waiting for us to filter them out instantly by location, gender, religion, hobbies and how desperate they want a partner.

When I consider flies and other insects, whose lives are brief, speed makes sense. They’re born, must find a mate, have babies, forage for food and then die. There’s little time to dally and it’s wise that they make haste. We, on the other hand, have plenty of time.

In fact, what is so ironic for us today is that, unlike flies or our ancestors, we are living lives that enjoy unprecedented longevity – some lives lasting as long as five score and still rising. Our predecessors, even with the disadvantage of less time, lived life at a much more leisurely pace.

Even with instant gratification, the hallmark of the post-modern generation, why is there so much boredom? Addictions. Whether we’re addicted to speed or drugs, neither offers enduring satisfaction.

One of the characteristics of addictions is the way they sate desire quickly, but only momentarily. Its pleasures are short lived. The junky is just finished scoring and he’s figuring out how to get his next hit. Alcoholics know that one drink is not enough, a thousand is too many.

With our culture addicted to speed (velocity, I mean) a new syndrome has been identified called ‘road rage.’ Drivers being stuck in traffic by another car driving slowly can turn motorists into predators. Initial symptoms may include tailgating, making obscene gestures or screaming one’s head off while pounding the steering wheel with both fists. Accidents occur and even homicides. Driving a car in stalled traffic can be worth your life.

I confess I am impatient with pokey drivers. It irritates me when I’m driving the St. Michaels road to and from Easton and get behind a car that’s creeping along. I come up close to the rear of the offending vehicle to see who’s holding me back. If I see no head above the driver’s seat backrest, I know it’s got to be an old lady or an old man reduced in size by age. I’m sure it’s not some kid, since teenagers that drive slowly are a vanishing, if not extinct, breed. They’re into serious speed. That the elderly drive slowly does make good sense; after all they’ve lived most of their lives and with what remains, they want to savor every minute of it, even if it ties traffic up and drives other motorists nuts. Although I say this reluctantly, I believe they’ve earned the right.

What is it that drives our need to be such a hurry, anyway? To save time. Save time to do what?

Spend the extra time on a smartphone. And what do we do with the additional information we’ve gleaned? Search for even more. And just what is all this time we’ve spent on gaining more information providing us? Well, more information. We have more information available to us than at any other time in human history and it’s never enough. We don’t know how to use half of it.

I suspect that the Zen master was telling his eager student that slowing down will achieve his goals more effectively than being in a hurry.

Locally, I drive on two lane roads. As I have begun thinking in more Zen-like ways to conduct my life, I’ve discovered something that occurs with remarkable predictability. It happens when I drive the St Michaels Road. If I’m in a hurry, some slug invariably pulls out from a side road and then creeps along at 35mph. I wait impatiently for a break in the traffic and pass him. As I do, and I feel triumphant as his car grows smaller and smaller in my rear view. What’s eerily predictable is that the light I come to is always red. I stop. Then in my rear-view mirror I see the same car I passed awhile back creeping up right behind me.

I gained no advantage by passing the slow car. My triumph was short lived. We both arrived at the same place at about the same time.

What would the Zen master say to that?

Make haste slowly.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.