A Very Small Meditation on Last Things

A Very Small Meditation on Last Things May 14, 2015

Ikkyu & the Courtesan
Yesterday afternoon I returned from a two-night “retreat” with Unitarian Universalist clergy down on Cape Cod. My use of scare quotes around the word retreat is simply because as a Zen person there’s a bit of a cognitive dissonance between my usual experience of retreat and what happens in any retreat outside my Zen context.

Setting the Zen aside, it was a retreat, a withdrawal from the regular. It featured a series of presentations and breakouts by a very accomplished younger minister working for our New England regional association, presenting the results of what data there is about the newer generation coming up, and what trends we might expect going forward within churches in general and for our liberal communities in particular. Longer, perhaps on speculation than data, it was nonetheless interesting.

The rest of our time was unstructured. That I liked a whole lot. I divided my time up into two rough halves. The smaller, I acknowledge, I spent with the colleagues. All of whom I have something near unique in common with, and so a rare opportunity, to commiserate. The larger half of the free time, I withdrew, and mostly read. A murder mystery. And during the day! Total Yum.

But, what generates this brief meditation (another word with multiple uses in my life…) is how this was my last Unitarian Universalist clergy retreat as a settled minister, as a “called” minister as we say in the trade. There will be other retreats. I have accepted an invitation to a slightly less than full time interim position in California starting in September. But, I will never again stand to be elected the minister, that is “the” minister of a church, with all the joys and responsibilities that means. And I will no longer be directly concerned in quite the same way with and involved in the long term view for a congregation, its life, and its health.

So, this was very much a last thing.

I’ve been doing a lot of these last things of late. Last meetings. Last lunches. There are about thirty days left for these things to happen before Jan and I pack up what is left of our worldly goods and drive out to Long Beach.

And being of that sort of turn of mind, I find myself thinking of end times.

As the calendar turned toward the year 2000, there was a minor secular apocalypse, where people were certain all sorts of computers that didn’t have programing dates for the twenty-first century were going to stop working. There were stories of planes falling out of the sky. And cities turned off. I personally knew people who were storing away food, and I suspect in one or two cases, guns and ammo. I had the privilege of making fun of my friends scheduling a sermon to be preached on the first Sunday in that new millennium, which If I recall correctly happened on a Saturday, and which I titled “Apocalypse When?” I figured nothing significant by way of disaster would happen, and proceeded on that assumption. Also, if things had collapsed, people would be too busy doing other things to notice my sermon title…

The last time there was a similar major turn of the calendar, from 999 to 1000, I understand there were similar concerns, although more clearly of a spiritual nature, return of Christ than our secular all the computers are going to crash version.

And, that’s merely meant to illustrate our human, well, at least our Western Judeo-Christian-Muslim sense of time beginning and ending dramatically. Others of the big religions have end times, too, but their cosmic speculations tend to be more cyclic. At least in the Hindu-Buddhist universes.

But, end times do come.

Mostly smaller end times. Like our move. Bigger, if still personal, like the little fact we are all of us going to die.

And, there are bigger real life end times. I think anyone standing in the way of the hordes sweeping out of Mongolia were facing an apocalypse just as true and literal as anything one can read in the Revelation of John. Except for the resurrection part.

In some schools of Buddhism, people, monks and nuns, the religious professionals, at least, are encouraged to go and meditate in grave yards.

Noticing the transitory nature of things can be helpful.

Noticing that every blessed thing made of parts will in fact come apart at some point is an important thing to notice.

Get that fact in our bones and it changes how we relate to things.

Or, can.

And I think that shift in relationship to our world and ourselves is generally salutary, or, again, can be. Me, I’m committed to noticing.

So, I’m trying to take the lessons as they’re being presented, whether the cosmos is consciously setting it up for me (highly unlikely, it does seem the universe is for the most part has other fish to fry) or just the fact of the narrative of my life, and Jan’s, means we’re in the midst of some serious disruptions, and without running too quickly to interpretations, I try just to notice.

And from there, there actually is one lesson to quickly get:

Passing, passing.

And out of that:

Holding, and cherishing, and knowing we are at the same time letting go, or being let go of.

It’s all part of that practice of noticing we’re not so much nouns, and a lot more verbs.

A very useful thing to notice…

Almost comforting…

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