Humanity constantly receives unexpected surprises. Unexpected because we don’t pay close enough attention to the signs of the times. The exact signs that are present every moment of creation.
We need help. We get help.
Upon learning of the death of the Buddhist monk Thay Thich Nhat Hanh I was reminded how reading his books surprised me. I felt how taking in his ideas opened my whole personhood. He didn’t use fancy language. His thoughts were nothing noticeably different from other writers. Reading the books of that unpretentious monk was almost the exact opposite of reading some fancy theological tome. The presentation of his ideas was closer to the ancient desert mothers and fathers than some the writings of a university professor.
In the brutally hot and humid summer of 2000 I attended a retreat Thich Nhat Hanh led at Stonehill College, a small college outside of Boston. To my shock and horror, I was one of one thousand who attended his first retreat on America’s East Coast. I was used to working and attending smaller retreats and schools held in small Catholic religious houses.
As the crowd took over the college campus, I found myself attending his retreat lectures in a most unexpected place. We retreatants sat on the floor of the college basketball gymnasium. The teacher and a few other monks and nuns were on a stage. It was the only campus facility large enough to hold us all.
The man rarely spoke loudly. An excellent sound system ensured our ability to pay attention to his deceptively unsophisticated yet profound discussions.
We one thousand broke up daily into small discussion groups. One day in my discussion group — without even thinking — I said he reminded me of my novice master who was also a living saint.
Everyone in the room gasped. The faces were filled with shock. The group leader asked me to repeat what I had just said.
So, I did. I said Thich Nhat Hanh reminded me of another monk, my Benedictine novice master who was a living saint. He was just like my novice master in his unassuming speech and manner. In what he taught and how he taught it.
He was a living saint.
My words lost them. Their befuddlement lost me.
Rarely do people speak of living saints. Of having one or more persons in their lives pointing the way to divinization. Persons who apparently are ordinary men and women and yet who are saints. Who show us how to do good and avoid evil.
How to breathe out the pain in our lives and breathe in holiness.
I have spent a lifetime in the presence of living saints. God knows how greatly upset I have been when it felt as though I were in a spiritual desert. When I saw no living saint around me.
This, I learned in that Buddhist retreat group, is my problem. I was raised with a living saint teaching me my spirituality. Saints have entered my life and left again, normally due to old age, illness and death.
While those people in my retreat group may have had living saints in their lives, we’re typically not taught to think about it. We’re not trained to see the holiness in ourselves and in each other.
All those times we hear of or observe other people doing good are minimized. We presume that other persons do something good because there is some payback for them. We may slack off and behave badly, but we’ve come to expect someone else to always be generous with us.
The fault is in our thinking.
The living saints teach us radically straightforward unworldly precepts.
In one retreat talk Thich Nhat Hanh told us to live deeply. Breathe deeply. Eat deeply. Piss deeply. Shit deeply.
Everything in the gymnasium was fine when he said the first few. Nothing happened. When he said to piss deeply, there was some nervous giggling. When he said to shit deeply, people were upset. Several people scooted around the floor. A few ducked out the rear entrances.
Any saint would say the same or similar.
In fact, my master did. To me. And then he told me to let go of whatever it was in my head and spirit holding back my spiritual development.
I have rarely heard a person so clearly annoyed with me. He shook my complacency.
To rid ourselves of the useless trivia inside us is precisely the point.
The point is to see clearly. Live deeply.
Getting rid of all that weight makes us able to live deeply.