The following meditation was given by the Rev. Dr. Peter Short to the annual gathering of Canadian Forces Chaplains in June of this year, and is published here with his kind permission. Rev. Short is a former Moderator of the United Church of Canada and is a member of the Interfaith Committee on Canadian Military Chaplaincy. The meditation below is useful not only for chaplains but for any person of faith who still has time to rest and enjoy what remains of summer. I hope you find it a blessing, as I did when I heard it. Enjoy. MP+
The Spiritual Life of the Chaplain
The Interfaith Committee on Canadian Military Chaplaincy
June 9, 2011
(Notes for an eight minute address to Canadian Forces Chaplains at Cornwall, ON.)
I offer three brief thoughts, each followed by a text. I hope that in receiving this - wheat and chaff together - you will keep what is worth keeping and with the breath of kindness blow the chaff away.
First, a thought. The spiritual life of the chaplain is a human life. I know - deep - but it’s the best place to start. Like all God’s creatures you are born, you flourish for a season, and die.
Do you know why mothers and fathers weep at weddings? It’s not because they are overcome by the beauty of liturgy or the splendour of costume. They weep because life is short
Here is a text by Michael Crummey, novelist and poet from Newfoundland and Labrador.
I, Ellen Rose of Western Bay in the Dominion of Newfoundland. Married woman, mother, stranger to my grandchildren. In consideration of natural love and affection, hereby give and make over unto my daughter Minnie Jane Crummey of Western Bay, a meadow garden situated at Riverhead, bounded to the north and east by Lovey’s Estate, to the south by John Lynch’s land, to the west by the local road leading countrywards. Bounded above by the sky, by the blue song of angels and God’s stars. Below by the bones of those who made me.
I leave nothing else. Every word I have spoken the wind has taken, as it will take me. As it will take my grandchildren’s children, their heads full of fragments and my face not among those. The day will come when we are not remembered, I have wasted no part of my life in trying to make it otherwise.
In witness thereof I have set my hand and seal this thirteenth day of December, One thousand nine hundred and Thirty-Three.
Ellen X Rose
(Michael Crummey, Hard Light, 1998)
This text is a simple and eloquent commentary on the wisdom of Qoheleth, the preacher whose work we call Ecclesiastes. Our life in all its dimensions, including its spiritual dimension, is the life of the creature.
A second thought. The spiritual life of the chaplain creature is vulnerable. That which is human is also frail. It can be easily damaged. Spiritual life can be used up and cast aside empty. We are neither immortal nor invulnerable. Forgetting or disdaining the source of the soul’s vitality, the chaplain soon becomes prey to her or his own ambition.
Here is a text by the Quaker educator and writer Parker Palmer. This is a brief section of an essay in which he is writing about what he calls, “the shadow side” of leaders.
I call [it] functional atheism. This is the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me. It is a belief held among people whose theology affirms a higher power than the human self, people who do not understand themselves as atheists but whose behavior belies their belief.
Functional atheism is an unconscious belief that leads to workaholic behavior, to burn-out, to stressed and strained and broken relationships, to unhealthy priorities. Functional atheism is the unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, I am the one who needs to make it happen. Functional atheism is the reason why the average group (according to studies) can tolerate only 15 seconds of silence; people believe that if they are not making noise, nothing is happening. Functional atheism is an inner shadow of leaders that leads to dysfunctional behavior on every level of our lives.
(Leading From Within, Parker Palmer, public address, 1990)
The spiritual life can become distorted and ultimately destructive, especially when the desperate chaplain goes beyond feeling responsible to God and gets to feeling responsible for God.
Therefore, a third thought. Like the life of any creature, the spiritual life must be connected to its lifesource. It must be nourished and defended against danger so that, like the flourishing tree, it might bring forth its fruit in its season. Here is a poem by Unitarian Universalist minister, editor and poet Lynn Ungar.
Consider the lilies of the field,
the blue banks of camas opening
into acres of sky along the road.
Would the longing to lie down
and be washed by that beauty
abate if you knew their usefulness,
how the natives ground their bulbs
for flour, how the settlers’ hogs
uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
oblivion as the flowers fell?
And you - what of your rushed and
useful life? Imagine setting it all down -
papers, plans, appointments, everything
leaving only a note: “Gone to the fields
to be lovely. Be back when I’m through
Even now, unneeded and uneaten, the
camas lilies gaze out above the grass
from their tender blue eyes.
Even in sleep your life will shine.
Make no mistake.
your work will always matter.
Yet Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.
(Lynn Ungar, Blessing the Bread: Meditations)
The healthy spiritual life returns again and again to the fields of its blooming. Perhaps the fields of your blooming are in the sacred texts in which you were seeded and sprouted. Or perhaps in the nurture and relationships of a community in which you were formed. Maybe there are practices of spiritual vitality through which your strength and your delight are restored in equal measure.
Wherever they are, return to the fields of your blooming. Not once but always. No chaplain wants to give people plastic flowers. Every chaplain wants to give the bloom of life.
So if you are setting out on holiday this summer and if on the last day of work you want to leave a message on your answering service, don’t forget to provide the numbers people can call in case of emergency. Then at the last, you can say, “Gone to the fields to be lovely, be back when I’m through with blooming.”
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