Sunday, February 23, 2014

The New Mother Teresa is...a Man?

His story reminded me of Mother Teresa. I thought he was an internet hoax. No one could possibly be that good. No one could be that kind. No one could be so self-sacrificing.

But he's real. And he's inspiring.

His name is Elder Dobri (or Dobri Dobrev). He's a 99-year-old Bulgarian man who lost most of his hearing in World War II and currently spends his days begging for money.

But here's the most remarkable thing: the money isn't for himself. He gives all of it to orphanages and churches.

I first learned about him through The Meta Picture (the images from his life are inspiring) and then confirmed the story on Snopes.com. He's real—unbelievably real.

I often marvel at individuals who are able to cast off the world and devote their lives to the service of others. Here is one of my favorite quotes from Elder Dobri:

"We have two wills, one from God, the other from the devil. And we are in war in our minds."

 Elder Dobri is definitely winning the war.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Leonardo da Vinci's Love for Life

I've been reading a most fascinating book. It's called Learning from Leonardo by Fritjof Capra. In this book, Capra draws upon his intimate knowledge of Leonardo da Vinci's personal notebooks to demonstrate the sheer genius of da Vinci's scientific achievements.

Truly, in nearly every conceivable field of study, Leonardo da Vinci was a jaw-dropping genius.

As I was reading, my attention was immediately drawn to a quote by da Vinci: "Qui non estima la vita non la merita."
"One who does not respect life does not deserve it."

I've thought a lot about that little quote. I thought about how eight years ago, I was so miserable and depressed. In the days leading up to my suicide attempt, I felt like my life had been completely drained of color. I felt like life was pointless, painful, and demeaning. I didn't respect the life I had been given and I failed to see the abundance of life that surrounded me.

In contrast, Leonardo clearly respected not only his own life, but the lives of others and the abundance of life that surrounded him. Perhaps it was this respect, curiosity, and love for life that made his own life so abundant.

Since recovering from my suicide attempt, I've learned the joy that comes from learning to love life. Food tastes better, hobbies are more enjoyable, the seasons are more beautiful, and my family and friends mean more to me than ever. As I've learned to love life, my life has been more fulfilling.

Life gives more to those who love life.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Does The Scarlet Letter REALLY Represent Adultery?

My favorite book is The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and it's also my favorite love story.

Oh yes, it's a love story.

The Scarlet Letter is set in 17th Century New England and tells the story of Hester Prynne, a woman that is punished for adultery and forced to wear a scarlet letter 'A'. Hester's adulterous affair had produced a child, and unbeknownst to the townsfolk, the father of that child was Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale.

Hawthorne is a master of symbolism and his book is filled to bursting with wisdom and insight about sin, guilt, and human nature. I read it at least once a year and each time I'm struck by new insights.

Last October, I had a thought occur to me which I had never before considered: does the scarlet letter represent adultery? We know that it represents adultery for Hester's Puritan society, but is that what it means to her?

Think about it: Hester wears the scarlet letter for the rest of her life—until the day she dies. There is only one time—one time—when she removes the scarlet letter. When she has a quiet rendezvous with her lover, Reverend Dimmesdale—Arthur Dimmesdale.

For all of Hawthorne's intellectual prowess, I really don't believe that he simply overlooked the fact that the first name of Hester's love begins with an 'A'. Perhaps this is why Hester was willing to carry the scarlet letter with her for the rest of her life. It was a representation of how she carried Arthur close to her heart.

The the last chapter of the book we find these immortal words: "Be true! Be true! Be true!"

Indeed, in matters of the heart, truth is paramount.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish

In 1833, Russian author, Alexander Pushkin, wrote a fairy tale about an old fisherman who captures a golden fish.

In exchange for freedom, the golden fish promises the old man that he will grant any of his wishes. The fisherman tells the fish that he does not want anything and immediately sets it free.

When he gets home, he tells his wife what had happened and she gets very angry with him. She reminds her husband about their broken trough and tells him to go back and ask the fish for a new one. When the husband asks for a new trough the golden fish happily grants his request.

Realizing that the golden fish is magic, the wife begins to ask for things without restraint: a new house, a palace, to become a noble lady, to become the ruler of her region, to become the tsarina, and to become the Ruler of the Sea so she could control the golden fish completely.

As her husband asks for each of these items, the sea becomes more and more tempestuous. When the old man asks that his wife be made the Ruler of the Sea, the fish takes away all of her wishes, giving her back her old hut and broken trough.

The moral of the story is this: be grateful for what you are given. Gratitude may grant you a golden fish, but greed will strip you of everything.

Here is a cute little Russian video I found on the fairy tale. The first little section is an introduction to Pushkin's fairy tales.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

C. S. Lewis, "The Silver Chair," and Addiction

Not long ago, I read C. S. Lewis' book The Silver Chair and stumbled across some pretty powerful symbolism: the Green Witch and the Silver Chair are symbols for addiction.

In this chronicle of Narnia, two children—Eustace and Jill—are sent by Aslan to help rescue Rilian, a prince who has been put under the spell of the Green Witch. 

Prince Rilian first encounters the Witch (although he doesn't know it) when she appears in the form of a snake. The snake is described "great, shining, and as green as poison." The snake kills Rilian's mother.

"The Prince took his mother's death very hardly, as well he might," and Rilian frequently rode out into Narnia, seeking to kill the beast and avenge his mother's death. As time goes on, people begin to notice a change in Prince Rilian: "There was a look in his eyes as of a man who has seen visions."

It is later revealed that Prince Rilian had given up his hunt for the snake and was being enchanted by the Green Witch. "She was tall and great, shining, and wrapped in a thin garment as green as poison. And the Prince stared at her like a man out of his wits."

The Witch eventually captures Prince Rilian and puts him under a spell. When Eustace and Jill discover him (in a dark, underground city many miles below the surface of the earth) they describe him as handsome and well-natured, but they also notice that there was "something about his face that didn't seem quite right." Because of the spell, neither the children—nor Rilian—know who he is.

As they talk, Rilian is laughs incessantly, finding even the darkest subjects (like war and death) to be humorous. He then tells the children that his Queen (the Witch), has the power to free him from an enchantment. Said he: "Every night there comes an hour when my mind is most horribly changed, and, after my mind, my body." He then praises the Queen, saying: "Is not that a lady worthy of a man's whole worship?"

Later that evening, Prince Rilian is bound to a silver chair. According to the Queen, Rilian being bound to this silver chair will keep him from hurting himself and others. In reality, the silver chair only reinforces the spell that has been cast on the Narnian Prince.

As he sweats and struggles in the bonds of the chair, Eustace and Jill decide to unbind him. Once free, Prince Rilian "crossed the room in a single bound, seized his own sword...and drew it." He then cleaves the silver chair in two. "The silver gave way before its edge like string, and in a moment a few twisted fragments, shining on the floor, were all that was left. But as the chair broke, there came from it a bright flash, a sound like small thunder, and (for one moment) a loathsome smell."

Prince Rilian then turns to the children and they notice that "the something wrong, whatever it was, had vanished from his face."

The realization that the silver chair could represent addiction fascinated me. My work at the Anasazi Foundation (a wilderness therapy program for struggling youth), and many of my own personal experiences have brought me face to face with the horrors and anguish of addiction. C. S. Lewis did a masterful job in illustrating the journey of an addict in The Silver Chair.
    1. A Difficult Experience - In The Silver Chair, the death of Prince Rilian's mother made him angry and vengeful. These emotions eventually led him to be caught under the spell of the Witch. Generally speaking, most addictions start because of negative life experiences: the death of a loved one, divorce, health problems, economic struggles or other difficulties. 
    2. Self-Medicating - Seeking relief from his anguish, Prince Rilian found beauty in a Witch that eventually put him under her spell. Many addicts start their addiction (to drugs, alcohol, pornography, relationships, et cetera) because it "helps" them escape from their problems. Addictions are almost always prompted as a way to cope with pain.
    3. Darkness and Secrecy - When the Witch captured Prince Rilian, she took him to an underground city deep beneath the surface of the earth. Secrecy is the hallmark of addiction. The addict knows that what they're doing is wrong and they anxiously try to cover it up.
    4. Forgetting Who We Are - This is the most fascinating thing to me: Rilian forgot who he was. He forgot that he was a Prince. When the addict abuses a substance, they're forgetting who they are--they're forgetting their families and friends and who they have the power to become--they're forgetting that they are a child of God.
    5. Darkness Becomes Light - After ten years of being under the spell of the silver chair, Prince Rilian could laugh at the darkness of death and murder. The more time an addict spends in secrecy and darkness, the more they'll find delight in darker themes.
Luckily, there is always way out. Just as Aslan sent Eustace and Jill to find and save Rilian, God also sends people and positive influences our way to help us remember who we are and to help us come out of darkness and into light.

In order to recover from addiction, we first need to admit what we're doing is wrong then reach out and develop meaningful relationships with God and with others. We need to rid ourselves of what is binding us, or holding us back (the silver chairs of our lives) and commit to walk forward into the light.

As we do so, life will become more meaningful as we begin to see it more clearly.

As Prince Rilian said: "For now that I am myself, I can remember that enchanted life, though while I was enchanted I could not remember my true self."

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Great Stone Face | Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my favorite authors and his book, The Scarlet Letter, is unquestionably my all-time favorite novel.

Hawthorne also had a great talent for writing powerful, symbolic short stories (read Young Goodman Brown—your life will never be the same).

I recently read another of Hawthorne's stories entitled The Great Stone Face. I could write half a dozen blog posts on this single story for it is filled with majestic, yet simplistic symbolism.

The story tells about a young man named Ernest who grows up in a small, rural town (most likely in the state of New Hampshire). High on the cliff of a mountain near the town, formed out of a cluster of rock, was what appeared to be the face of a man.

For countless centuries, this Great Stone Face had overlooked the valley like a titanic guardian.
It was a happy lot for children to grow up to manhood or womanhood with the Great Stone Face before their eyes, for all the features were noble, and the expression was at once grand and sweet, as if it were the glow of a vast, warm heart, that embraced all mankind in its affections, and had room for more. It was an education only to look at it. According to the belief of many people, the valley owed much of its fertility to this benign aspect that was continually beaming over it, illuminating the clouds, and infusing its tenderness into the sunshine.
Local legend claimed that one day, the Great Stone Face would visit the people in the form of a man. When he appeared, the townsfolk would recognize him as the "the greatest and noblest personage of his time."

The boy Ernest longed to meet this noble personage and eagerly anticipated his arrival. In watching and waiting for this personage to appear, Ernest spends much of his time pondering about and learning from the Great Stone Face.
[The townspeople] knew not that the Great Stone Face had become a teacher to [Ernest], and that the sentiment which was expressed in it would enlarge the young man's heart, and fill it with wider and deeper sympathies than other hearts. They knew not that thence would come a better wisdom than could be learned from books, and a better life than could be moulded on the defaced example of other human lives. Neither did Ernest know that the thoughts and affections which came to him so naturally, in the fields and at the fireside, and wherever he communed with himself, were of a higher tone than those which all men shared with him. A simple soul,--simple as when his mother first taught him the old prophecy,--he beheld the marvellous features beaming [down] the valley, and still wondered that their human counterpart was so long in making his appearance.
And the more Ernest ponders the Great Stone Face, the stronger his character became.
Not a day passed by, that the world was not the better because this man, humble as he was, had lived. He never stepped aside from his own path, yet would always reach a blessing to his neighbor. Almost involuntarily too, he had become a preacher. The pure and high simplicity of his thought, which, as one of its manifestations, took shape in the good deeds that dropped silently from his hand, flowed also forth in speech. He uttered truths that wrought upon and moulded the lives of those who heard him. His auditors, it may be, never suspected that Ernest, their own neighbor and familiar friend, was more than an ordinary man; least of all did Ernest himself suspect it; but, inevitably as the murmur of a rivulet, came thoughts out of his mouth that no other human lips had spoken.
As he grows older, Ernest encounters several individuals who are rumored to have the likeness of the Great Stone Face: a merchant, a general, a politician, and poet. Each of them have flaws in their nature that Ernest discerns. Ernest begins to doubt that he will ever see the Great Stone Face personified.

After many years of waiting, the humble Ernest, is asked to deliver one of his sermons at the base of the Great Stone Face.

What followed is a beautiful testament to the fact that we become what we admire:
Ernest began to speak, giving to the people of what was in his heart and mind. His words had power, because they accorded with his thoughts; and his thoughts had reality and depth, because they harmonized with the life which he had always lived. It was not mere breath that this preacher uttered; they were the words of life, because a life of good deeds and holy love was melted into them. Pearls, pure and rich, had been dissolved into this precious draught. The poet, as he listened, felt that the being and character of Ernest were a nobler strain of poetry than he had ever written. His eyes glistening with tears, he gazed reverentially at the venerable man, and said within himself that never was there an aspect so worthy of a prophet and a sage as that mild, sweet, thoughtful countenance, with the glory of white hair diffused about it. At a distance, but distinctly to be seen, high up in the golden light of the setting sun, appeared the Great Stone Face, with hoary mists around it, like the white hairs around the brow of Ernest. Its look of grand beneficence seemed to embrace the world. 
At that moment, in sympathy with a thought which he was about to utter, the face of Ernest assumed a grandeur of expression, so imbued with benevolence, that the poet, by an irresistible impulse, threw his arms aloft and shouted,"Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!"

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Step to A New Life

My Anasazi Blanket
As some of you may know, I used to work at the Anasazi Foundation, a wilderness therapy program for at-risk youth. After five years and many memorable experiences, Anasazi had become my home away from home.

When you first begin at Anasazi (either as an employee or as a client) you participate in what is called a "blanket stepping."

Two blankets, one old and one new, are placed upon the earth. A SageWalker sits upon the old blanket and invites the other to sit across from them.

On the old blanket, many sacred things are discussed, among them are the principles of forward and backward walking and an invitation to move forward.

At it's core, walking forward is to make good choices that encourage us to love others and to have a heart at peace. Walking backwards is to make wrong choices that fill us with enmity and encourage a heart at war.

When we symbolically leave things behind on the old blanket, we then step onto the new blanket, symbolic of our step to a new life.

Not long after I left Anasazi, I married my wife, Kim. I've come to realize that my departure from Anasazi has been a symbolic and literal step to a new life. I've learned that part of moving forward is to not only leave behind negative things, but to know when to move on from good things to fulfill greater things.

Shortly before the wedding ceremony, I received a wedding gift from Anasazi.

It was a blanket.

The card that came with the blanket read, in part:
A blanket wraps us in warm protection at our earthly birth, a blanket covers and wraps us throughout our lives. Blankets symbolize many things in life. 
For us, the blanket symbolizes our Belonging Place among our people--tied together to others, belong to them and they to us. 
We give you, Seth and Kimberly, this blanket in love and with great gratitude for all that you are and all you do. You both have special Belonging places because you have wrapped others in love and service. May our Creator bless this your sacred New Beginning you are going to walk together into eternity. 
Love, Anasazi Foundation and the Sanchez Tribe.
To all who are reading this, I invite you to find a new beginning of your own and to walk forward.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Mother Teresa and Spiritual Hunger

"Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in His love than in your own weakness." - Mother Teresa

In doing some research about Mother Teresa, I was led to a beautiful speech written by Jeffrey R. Holland. Here is a selection of that talk:
Some time ago I read an essay referring to “metaphysical hunger” in the world. The author was suggesting that the souls of men and women were dying, so to speak, from lack of spiritual nourishment in our time. That phrase, “metaphysical hunger,” came back to me last month when I read the many richly deserved tributes paid to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. One correspondent recalled her saying that as severe and wrenching as physical hunger was in our day—something she spent virtually her entire life trying to alleviate—nevertheless, she believed that the absence of spiritual strength, the paucity of spiritual nutrition, was an even more terrible hunger in the modern world. 
These observations reminded me of the chilling prophecy from the prophet Amos, who said so long ago, 'Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.' 
During the Savior’s Galilean ministry, He chided those who had heard of Him feeding the 5,000 with only five barley loaves and two fishes, and now flocked to Him expecting a free lunch. That food, important as it was, was incidental to the real nourishment He was trying to give them. 
'Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead,' He admonished them. 'I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever.' 
But this was not the meal they had come for, and the record says, 'From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.' 
In that little story is something of the danger in our day. It is that in our contemporary success and sophistication we too may walk away from the vitally crucial bread of eternal life; we may actually choose to be spiritually malnourished, willfully indulging in a kind of spiritual anorexia. Like those childish Galileans of old, we may turn up our noses when divine sustenance is placed before us. Of course the tragedy then as now is that one day, as the Lord Himself has said, 'In an hour when ye think not the summer shall be past, and the harvest ended,' and we will find that our 'souls [are] not saved.' 
To read the full talk by Jeffrey R. Holland, please click here.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Doubt and Pride

I love the play Cyrano de Bergerac. It's a wonderful love story told in beautiful, passionate prose (and it's also the inspiration for the movie Megamind—another favorite of mine—but this isn't the place for that).

Not long ago, I was reading Cyrano and I came across a rather intriguing line:
This new-born babe, an infant Hercules! Strong enough at birth to strangle those Two serpents – Doubt and Pride.
I thought about that for a while. Two serpents: Doubt and Pride. I love symbolism in Greek Mythology, yet I had never heard these serpents being referred to as Doubt and Pride.

But come to think of it, the serpents of doubt and pride have a close connection with another serpent—the serpent. For it was Satan who appeared to Adam and Eve in the form of a snake, tempting them to eat the fruit of the tree—contrary to the commandment of God.

In tempting them to eat the fruit, he was tempting them to doubt God. Doubting God is only possible when we think that God is wrong and that is the very height of pride: to be believe that we know more than God.

And when you think about it, doubt and pride are the only two things that keep us from Heaven. If we doubt God's commandments, we will not keep them. If we think we know of a better road than His strait and narrow, we will forsake His road in favor of ours.

So Cyrano was right to be amazed at the strength of Hercules. As a babe, he was able to strangle both doubt and pride. The fact that Hercules defeated those two serpents was but a foreshadow of his eventual triumph on Mount Olympus (Heaven).