The Practice of Living

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“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

T.S. Elliot – Four Quartets

Its October—again. And, again, I am trimming the summer off the bushes, and pruning back the roses so they will not break in the winds of winter. I spent the afternoon mowing the grass for what I hope is the last time till spring, then fertilizing before the fall rains arrive.

Later I change out the furnace filters. That evening I turn on the furnace for the first time since last spring, and once more I smell that first burst of summer-stagnant air that sat still in vents until the furnace fan chased it out.

And as always, the changing season announces its arrival with forty-degree mornings while warming up in the short sunny days. I have been watching closely for the change—from that first sign of gold at the tip of otherwise emerald green leaves. Yet, as eagerly as I watch, the trees seem to change their clothes overnight, into the familiar resplendence of rubies and ambers and golds.

I find myself astounded by it all—even in the more domestic chores of fall—as if I was still that ten-year-old boy roaming the autumn woods in Iowa next to the river, kicking up what seems to be the same fiery leaves, from the same fiery trees.

Is it possible to attend to all the other routine experiences of living with this same wonder and delight? The earth turns and turns on its axis, presenting itself to me again and again, yet why am I sometimes blown away by the wonder of it all, and at other times sleep-walk right by it?

Children come to us with this innate sense of wonder—for naturally everything is either new, or at least still fresh. Nothing has yet become stale. They walk through their day wide-eyed, pumped with anticipation for the next new discovery—until they wear themselves out and fall asleep to dream of what they saw.

Children are amateurs at living. The word amateur comes from the French, meaning simply “A lover of…”. Children are lovers of living, until sadly many grow up and out of the amateur status and become living professionals— “seen it, done it”.

To practice living means to continually renew my amateur status. As Jesus once said “unless you become like one of these children, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” He later describes this kingdom as something within us, not out there. A kingdom in its essence of righteousness (i.e. goodness), peace, and joy.

It also involves becoming a ‘practitioner’ in the sense a lawyer practices, skillfully (we hope) law, or a Physician practices medicine with utmost skill and care. We grow into our practice by practicing.

What I must do to be a true practitioner of life—one who wakes each morning to the freshness and startling originality of each moment—is to see my movement through my days as one traveling along the path of an ever-widening and upward helix. Like a true amateur, to love each wondrous moment.

Even in those times of pain and suffering and loss, a practitioner of life trusts like a child that it will be OK. Life does not stop there—it propels us upward and outward. For the amateur practitioner, it always moves forward.

In the Catholic, Anglican, and Episcopalian traditions, they observe a regular annual cycle through their established liturgical calendar. Being raised in a Catholic home, I experienced the repeating cycles of Advent, Christmas season, ordinary time (when Christ did extraordinary deeds), Lent, Easter, and then repeat. These seasons are punctuated by annual solemn feasts and anniversaries. There is always something to pay attention to.

The Liturgical Cycle is one of their unique treasures. These ‘seasons’ of the Church are an opportunity to re-visit milestones and mysteries in the life of Christ –and to enter into those seasons in ever deepening levels.

The mysteries contained in these liturgies do not change, but we do. A little older and wiser, we have the opportunity to review and renew these mysteries. When the familiar feasts come around we grasp something more about them because we have lived another year and apply them more deeply to our lives. It is our opportunity to grow in wisdom and grace year after year. This is a life-long journey of formation, like a school in which we learn faith, hope and charity. Like a soft, but incessant rain, the practice of the liturgical cycle leads to growth as a human.

In much the same way, those who practice recovery from addiction through the 12-step process discover that the continuous repeating of that process results in increasing freedom from unhealthy thinking, actions, and stress that could lead to a relapse. If they practice their recovery as if they are new to it all, they get great results each time through. With each cycle through a set of prescribed actions, they find themselves in a better place, a new place, because the person taking these actions is not the same as the one who took them one, two, five, or ten years earlier.

Do all these church members or those in recovery approach the repeating seasons and actions with this expectation. Unfortunately, no. I didn’t in my teens and as young adult. The cycle became stale and boring. Instead of growing on the helix of human development, I was stuck on a one-dimensional circle, with life events spinning round and round, never seeing events with new eyes.

As I wake up each morning, I can choose to be an amateur practitioner of life—letting my love of life allow me to see it all as new every morning. moving up and along the great helix of human and spiritual development—Or, I can be that spot on a one-dimensional circle, with the same events rolling over me year after year, having experience without meaning. Having no fun. The choice is mine.

Now, on to Halloween, Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas—as if for the first time. After all, I am an amateur practitioner.

Happy Autumn



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