(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Omar Capo was one of the youngest persons shot and killed during last Sunday’s hate crime in Orlando. His family moved from Puerto Rico to Cleveland when Omar was a child, but last year he came out to his family as gay and moved to Orlando. In an interview with NPR this past week, Omar’s sister talked about her brother with a voice that was almost cheerful. It was disconcerting to me at first – how could she sound happy when she had just tragically lost her brother?
But she explained herself. Omar had told his family about a year ago, soon before he moved to Florida, that if anything bad happened to him, they should not mourn but instead be happy.
Omar, it seems, loved to dance – from reggae, to hip-hop to salsa. He found joy in dancing whenever he could. He was a person who made others happy – and dancing was a primary way he expressed himself – often in spontaneous moments of joy at home or school. He would simply start dancing in the middle of everyday events.
Omar told his family before he left Cleveland that if he should die, he’ll be somewhere dancing, and that is how they should think of him. His favorite color was yellow, his sister said. It’s a happy color and one that Omar pointed out is a vibrant one in rainbows and on rainbow flags. Perhaps when any of us see a rainbow flag and its yellow stripe in the future, we will think of Omar and all the others like him who were killed and wounded in Orlando. We might imagine them dancing as they happily were last Sunday morning – just before hatred showed its ugly face.
It’s been an emotional week as a result of the Orlando shootings. In what seems to have been a hate crime directed at gays and lesbians, the attack is therefore personal for many in the LGBT community. It reminds us that homophobia still exists – that some consider us less than normal, unwelcome, and deserving of being scorned and killed. But the attack was also a larger American tragedy and one that drives home the point that we are all vulnerable to random attack and death from gun violence. It ought to make every person ponder the question of what to do about hate and anger mixed with easy access to military assault rifles. In the midst of a busy and emotional week for me for several reasons, a week in which I often felt very down, it was hard to spend time pondering the meaning of the tragedy and what can be done. Yet, in preparing for today, I quickly realized the inspiring example of Omar Capo and other victims – they speak to what I planned for this message.
How might we spend our upcoming summer, hopefully a time of some relaxation and time off, meditating on deeper questions? Many of us will take a vacation in the coming months – a journey to a place of interest or fun that will revitalize our physical selves. But will we take an inner journey to heal and enlarge our souls? We talk about peace in our world but are we willing to do the work of creating that within ourselves? Might we work to find the inner peace and contentment that young Omar Capo found?
Depak Chopra, the famous contemporary spiritual guide, says that he believes our outer selves, or our bodies, are driven primarily by our egos – the part of us that has needs, demands and fears. Our outer domain is focused on material things and satisfying desires. Our inner domain, however, is driven entirely by love – for ourselves and for others. Nurturing and healing our inner selves is the means by which we feel self-love and what compels us to also love others. Failing to take regular inner journeys can result in a failure to truly love ourselves and thereby be compassionate and empathetic to others.
This distinction between our inner and outer selves is interesting. Neither domain is good or bad but in today’s modern world, many of us have let our egos, or our outer selves, dominate. We seek pleasure and we avoid pain. But we do all of that on an external level – one that mostly affects how we physically experience life.
To tap into our inner selves and find a lasting reward of peace and love, we have to purposefully remove ourselves, for a time, from the needs and wants of our flesh. It’s for that reason that almost all of the world’s religions encourage some type of temporary fasting, or denial of self, that facilitates an inner journey. Muslims, this month, are engaged in Ramadan reflections – a time of abstinence from daytime eating and pleasures in order to find connection with God and love.
For me, in today’s modern world, removing myself from outside influences involves what I call “turning off in order to turn on”. How can I, for brief periods of time, turn off the outside world of TV, radio, computer and smartphone in order to turn on to my inner self – my soul, emotions, deepest hopes, and thoughts? In doing so, might I find the source of happiness that doesn’t depend on physical well being?
Summer is a perfect time of year for such an inner journey because it is a time when I am, at least, in closest touch with nature. I want to spend more time outdoors and, in doing so, I want to use that time to appreciate the wonders of nature and to reflect.
It is for such reasons that Henry David Thoreau retreated into the woods at Walden Pond for his reflections. As he said, “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn. We need the tonic of wilderness.”
Nature is both a physical and a metaphysical playground – a place to renew our bodies AND our souls. Only in nature can we detach ourselves from things we have made, and instead commune with things we cannot make – mountains, forests, and oceans. As I said last week, we then come into the presence of majesty that inspires awe. Having returned to nature’s womb, we can better celebrate ourselves and deeply think about what we want from life.
The three major world religions each offer examples of how persons called mystics plumbed the depths of their inner selves to arrive at enlightenment. Sufism, for example, is the mystical branch of Islam – of whom Rumi is its most famous philosopher. He spent much of his time alone as he lived an ascetic life with few luxuries. He cared for pilgrims who came seeking his advice – listening to their concerns, cooking for them, and housing them, for free, in his small house. For Rumi, denying oneself is a way to undertake an inner journey to find truth and peace of mind. Many Sufis go beyond regular Muslim worship and practice rituals such as repeatedly whirling in a circular dance that induces a kind of trance. In doing so, Sufis escape the outer world and enter a contented state of mind. As Rumi said, “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”
Judaism likewise has its expression of mysticism in the Kabbalah stream of belief. It, too, focuses on exploring the inner self by intentionally denying worldly pleasures. Kabbalah Judaism asks that followers abandon desires and egotism – the worst of which, they believe, is arrogance.
Jews who transcribed the Dead Sea scrolls and lived a hundred years before Jesus are said to be the first Jewish Kabbalah mystics. Like Thoreau and Muslim Sufis, these ancient Jews, or Essenes as they are called, abandoned civilization and retreated to a spot in the arid hills overlooking the Dead Sea. There they led a harsh but simple life of communal sharing, humility, non-violence and study of the Torah to find messages from Yahweh.
Like the whirling ritual of Sufis, these ancient Jews practiced their own ritual by daily immersing in water by which they felt spiritually purified. Only by symbolically washing themselves of worldly influences could they find clarity of mind to feel Yahweh’s presence.
St. Francis of Assisi and Hildegard of Bengin were both early Christian mystics who also explored the inner self. Hildegard is one of the earliest of female Saints – a woman who like mystics from other religions – denied herself worldly pleasures. She insisted on living in a crude one room hut instead of a warm and dry convent building. Only in that kind of life, she said, could she feel near God.
Her emphasis was on expressing true love. In her mystical visions, she saw what she described as a bright shining light that filled her with a sense of being totally loved. She believed that God only speaks and acts with love, that God and love are the same, and that humans express and feel God only when they love others.
And St. Francis, the namesake of the current Pope, was also a medieval mystic who lived a simple life. But his teaching was not against possessions themselves – mere things as he called them – but against the mindset of possessing. If we think we possess something, we are making an object more important than our inward contentment and the well-being of others.
Francis was also an early version of a pantheist, what I described last week. He saw God in everything – in all of nature. Indeed, he even went so far as to say that trees, worms and flowers are physical manifestations God’s love. Like Rumi, the Essenes, and Hildegard, God for Francis was the embodiment of love.
One of the mystical visions Francis described was of seeing a leper come towards him carrying a piece of rotten meat. The leper was both horribly contagious and smelled awful. Francis, in this vision, rode his horse away as fast as possible. But something caused him to turn around, get off his horse, approach and then kiss the leper. In doing so, according to his vision, the leper’s face became that of Jesus. From that point onward, Francis was convinced that it is in loving and serving the poor and hurting people of the world that one encounters pure goodness and total love.
I have no illusions that any of us will experience the kinds of lives that mystics led. I also don’t expect us to believe in their mysticism. But for these mystics and millions of people who are inspired by them, their inner journeys led to personal contentment. We need not see visions of Jesus or live in a crude shack. But we can find our own version of inner peace. Each mystic found communion with nature and they all experienced an ecstatic experience that they defined as feeling totally loved. Such are inner journey goals we might set for ourselves.
As a practical matter, I believe there are several ways to explore our inner selves that will offer insight. The first is to explore attitudes about ourselves. Are we content with ourselves, what we do, and what we have done in life? Are we content by ourselves or do we feel uneasy and nervous when alone – as if when we are with a stranger we do not like? Can we honestly say that, yes, “I love myself? If we can’t, then we ought to explore reasons why we don’t love ourselves and seek ways to correct that.
Second, we should examine how we feel about our jobs, daily activities or hobbies. Are we happy in what we do – in our work, volunteering or hobbies? So many people work long days but don’t find meaning and pleasure in what they do. In a recent Gallup poll, over half of Americans say they dislike their daily work or activity. During an inner journey, it is important to ask yourself if you are happy with what you do – and if not, to ponder instead the work or activities that will give you joy and purpose.
Third, the inner journey involves asking what is our connection with nature? I believe that true happiness lies outside man-made structures. It’s found in the outdoors and in our appreciation of nature through walks, silently sitting within it, or gazing upon and contemplating natural wonders.
During an inner journey, we should also get in touch with our true emotions. How do you feel about yourself, life, and other people? Are you angry, depressed or fearful? Being outside and in nature, we cannot help but feel loved by a universe that made us. That feeling, for me, helps eliminate some of my negative emotions.
Ask yourself during an introspective inner journey many questions. What inspires you? What gives you meaningful pleasure in life? How can you sacrificially serve others who cannot, in turn, help you? By asking these questions, we can better understand how to find peaceful contentment. Love yourself. Love what you do. Love other people.
President Obama said in his remarks about the victims in Orlando that they were doing nothing more than happily living life and asserting their civil rights. He was right. Omar Capo, who I described earlier, had found the keys to a joyful and purpose filled life. He’d likely undertaken his own inner journey – one that beckoned him to come out and live truthfully as a gay man. And in that truth, and in his inner self, he’d found happiness – the kind that is infectious and lasting. If we want a world of peace and joy, then we each must find them within ourselves. This summer, let’s get outside. Let’s thrill at the beauty of nature and our place in it. And then, may we each feel the kind of infinite love that both conquers hate and lasts forever.