Unlocking Happiness, Cardiovascular Health, and Longevity
God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction. Meister Eckhart, sermon on Romans 8:18
While the United Nations and most scientists consider any age beyond 60 as old age, it’s important to recognize that aging varies for each person. Some individuals may feel elderly and frail at 60, while others are still vibrant and healthy. Numerous factors influence the pace of aging – some accelerate it, while others decelerate it.
The global population of individuals aged 65 and older is increasing at a faster rate compared to other age groups. Based on data from the 2019 Revision of the World Population Prospects, it is projected that by the year 2050, approximately one in six people around the world will be aged 65 or above (16%), which is an increase from the ratio of one in eleven observed in 2019 (9%).
Searching for happiness and peace has to do with our connectedness to ourselves, those around us, and to our universe.
“Many of us feel disconnected by difficult times, longing for ways to awaken God’s love in ourselves and the world,” Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, has written in his book The Universal Christ, “The reality we face is simple yet difficult—the healing of the world hinges upon honoring the inherent sacredness of the world and everyone in it.”
“Faith is much better than belief. Belief is when someone else does the thinking.”
– Buckminster Fuller
If you ask most people, they will tell you that faith and belief are the same thing. But in truth, they are not.
According to Webster, the definition of belief is: “An opinion or judgement in which a person is fully persuaded.” Belief often comes from someone else. For example, your parents follow a certain religion, which is defined by a certain set of beliefs. Therefore, you take on that same belief system.
Belief or Faith?
Belief is in the mind, whereas faith is in the heart. They can intersect though, and even unite as one.
Faith comes from within, is spiritual, and sees love. This includes our own self-realization that forms or confirms our beliefs. But it is bigger than that. Faith requires action. If our faith doesn’t move us to do something or say something—to actually take action—it’s not really faith. “So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” – James 2:17.
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Difference Between Belief and Faith
Many of the people I work with have cancer. Many have advanced cancer, and often, their doctor tells them how long they have to live. The doctor may pronounce, “You have three to six months, perhaps a year to live,” and the person takes that to be the ultimate truth. And they begin to believe it, based solely on the doctor’s words, which is usually based on statistics and assumes few, if any, will beat the odds. Obviously, trying to predict how long someone has to live has serious effects on their well-being by imposing a belief that seems certain and final, and takes away any sense of hope and faith in a higher power.
I have many patients who are living many more years than anyone ever expected. And more than just surviving, they are thriving. I frequently tell my patients, “Don’t believe what you are told. Instead, focus on doing the best you can to live, and to live well. I will do the same, and hopefully, your healing team will embrace that same approach. As long as we’re doing the best we can, there is nothing to worry about.”
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” ~ Proverbs 3:5
Wisdom from the Desert Fathers
The Desert Fathers were Christian hermits who lived in the Egyptian desert in the third century AD. Following the example of Jesus, the monks devoted themselves to lives of prayer and austerity. The first Desert Father was Paul of Thebes, and the most well-known was Anthony the Great, who became known as both the father and founder of desert monasticism.
Father Paul once visited Anthony when he was teaching three monks about a very difficult matter of faith. Paul withdrew into a corner and waited silently until Father Antonius was ready.
Antonius asked the youngest of the three monks what he thought about the matter. The young man responded immediately; what he lacked in knowledge, he supplemented with fire and enthusiasm. When he was finished, Father Antonius remained silent for a while, then said, “You haven’t found the right answer yet.”
Then the second one got the floor. He was a little older, had read some books, and had more life experience. He chose learned words and formulated them more carefully. When he was finished, Father Antonius said, “You too have not found the right answer yet.”
Finally, the oldest of the three was allowed to give an answer. He spoke thoughtfully, and you could tell he had read many books and had a long prayer experience. When he was finished, Father Antonius remarked, “You haven’t found the right answer yet.”
The moment he opened his mouth to say something about the very difficult issue of faith himself, he turned to the old abbot and asked, “Father Paul, could you possibly say something about this?” Finally, Paul said: “I don’t know…”
Father Anthony turned to his three disciples and with a raised finger, he said, “Father Paul has found the right answer.”
These old stories prove to be relevant for today. “I don’t know,” is the correct answer to complex theological issues. How beautiful is that? It’s good to remember the next time you end up in a discussion or question in a matter about faith.
Faith, Courage, and Patience
Faith will empower our patience. Courage will sustain our perseverance. With that faith and courage, we can live with the forces of change. We will not set ourselves against them defiantly, as we are first inclined. And as we abide the changes in good faith, trusting that our life will unfold as we dreamed, or as it was intended, our despair and doubt fade. For we realize that our personal power and peace need not be the victims of things we do not know. We discover that those times of confusion and doubt need not undermine our connection to God and his universal wisdom. For that wisdom is living itself out in our lives, expressing its Divine guidance in ways we did not know.
The Question of the Resurrection
Although Judaism does not have a definitive answer to the question of what happens after we die, resurrection has played an important role in Jewish eschatology.
“From the Torah: for it is written: ‘And the Lord said to Moses, Behold you shall sleep with your fathers; and this people will rise up’ [Deuteronomy 31:16]. From the Prophets: as it is written: ‘Your dead men shall live, together with my dead bodies shall they arise. Awake and sing, you that dwell in the dust; for your dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out its dead.’ [Isaiah 26:19]; from the Writings: as it is written, ‘And the roof of your mouth, like the best wine of my beloved, like the best wine, that goes down sweetly, causing the lips of those who are asleep to speak’ [Song of Songs 7:9].” Rabbi Meir also answered this question saying: “As it is said: ‘Then will Moses and the children of Israel sing this song unto the Lord’ [Exodus 15:1]. It is not said ‘sang’ but ‘will sing’; hence the Resurrection is deducible from the Torah.”
For many Christians, ‘belief’ in the resurrection is fundamental to their religion. Most rehearse this belief every Easter Sunday, but then stick it away in the closet for the rest of the year.
Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”
– Saint Augustine
Easter, referred to as Pascha within the Eastern Christian religion, is considered to be the most important Orthodox holy day of the year. Pascha comes from both the Greek and Latin words for “Easter,” the day celebrating when Jesus Christ rose from the dead. The verbal form of this word, pascho in Greek, means “to suffer.” Originally, the Hebrew word pasach referred to the Passover feast (Exodus 12) that was celebrated during the same week Jesus was crucified.
Faith Requires Trust and Intimacy
Father Richard Rohr believes that we can only experience true intimacy when we are willing to be vulnerable ourselves. He goes on to say that intimacy could be described as our capacity for closeness and tenderness toward things. It makes all love possible, and yet it also reveals our utter incapacity to love back as the other deserves.
I think that many of us are afraid of intimacy, of baring our deepest identity to another human or even to God. Yet people who risk intimacy are invariably happier and much more authentically human. Soulful intimacy is a gateway into the sacred realm of human and divine love.
According to Father Richard Rohr: The big and hidden secret is this: an infinite God seeks and desires intimacy with the human soul. The mystics (those who personally know the inner space of God) are aware that they have been let in on a big and wondrous secret. Anyone not privy to this inner dialogue would call such people presumptuous, foolish, or even arrogant. This is without a doubt “God’s secret, in which all the jewels of wisdom and knowledge are hidden (Colossians 2:3).”
The Radical Transformation of a Caterpillar
There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”
– Buckminster Fuller
There is no scientific basis for resurrection. There is no way a living form could die, dissolve away, and be reassembled into another creature. Hold onto that thought…and now, start to imagine the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Truly, it is a miracle. If science was to look for evidence of death followed by resurrection, they wouldn’t need to go very far. It happens every day. Caterpillars die and are resurrected as butterflies, using the same fluids as the original life form.
“I believe in God, only I spell it as Nature.” ~ Frank Lloyd Wright
Within its protective casing, the caterpillar radically transforms, eventually emerging as a butterfly or moth. But what does that radical transformation entail?
Scientists have long been astonished by the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies. Before hatching, when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth—discs for its eyes, for its wings, its legs and so on. The caterpillar eats voraciously during its entire lifespan, presumably to accumulate sufficient nutrients for the coming transition. When the time is right, the caterpillar spins itself into a silk coverlet (a cocoon) and digests itself. During the larval phase, the release of enzymes kills the caterpillar and destroys all of its organs, turning into a mushy soup, with nothing left of its former self. If one opens a larva, there is no sign of the original caterpillar; it is gone, except for the “imaginal cells” that survive.
Then, through a miraculous sequence of events, a new set of instructions takes hold, and the amino acids in the larval soup are rearranged, carefully and meticulously, into an entirely new organism. The imaginal cells emerge, armed with genetic instructions for the transformation. Initially, the caterpillar’s immune system rejects the imaginal cells, but they continue to multiply. Finally, the imaginal cells begin to clump together, forming the organs of an entirely new organism with completely different anatomical features, including long legs and wings.
The fact that the caterpillar’s immune system attacks the new cells of the butterfly demonstrates that biologically, the two insect forms are entirely distinct life forms. Essentially, the caterpillar dies and is resurrected.
One of the songs from the popular new Disney movie “Encanto” is “Dos Oruguitas,” the first Oscar-nominated song written entirely in Spanish. Dos Oruguitas translates into “Two (Little) Caterpillars.” The song is performed beautifully by the Colombian singer Sebastian Yatra.
The song describes two caterpillars in love. They rejoice in their togetherness, holding each other, staying together constantly through good and bad weather. Just as soulmates do! But somehow, they know that very soon, they will need to let go. The time comes when they turn into larvae, re-emerging as butterflies. There is nothing the caterpillars can do to stop the inevitable. The song and images evoked are beautiful, and state something that carries us beyond the mundane ordinary and into the truly meaningful extraordinary—the thought that we are called to live in the image of GOD. There, we will go from crawling to flying and be truly happy.
Life After Death
Religions have debated the concept of death and resurrection for tens of thousands of years. And during the millennia, scientists have generally been silent about the likelihood of rebirth. After all, from an empirical point of view, there is nothing to say. There is no experiment that one can perform to prove or disprove the existence of life after death.
Generally speaking, woman are in many ways stronger than men, and the bible highlights this as it regards faith. Other than John, it was all women at the cross, and the first witnesses of the Resurrection are women. This is beautiful, and I believe it is profoundly insightful.
Pope Francis said, “and they had accompanied him to the very end.” Even though the women initially reacted with fear, it is their “loving remembrance of their experience with the Master that enables the women to master their fear, and to bring the message of the Resurrection to the Apostles and all the others.” The Apostles and disciples found it hard to believe in the Risen Christ, not the women! “The women,” he attested, “are compelled by love and know how to welcome this announcement with faith.”
The Butterfly Effect and Transforming Ourselves
The “butterfly effect” is the phenomenon whereby a small change at one place in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere. For example, a butterfly flapping its wings in Rio de Janeiro might change the weather in Chicago. I believe that everyone matters, everything matters, and every moment matters. We are only scratching the surface of what we are capable of. For all of us, limitations are a lack of faith and trust.
“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” Matthew 6:28
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.” Matthew 6:28
Happiness is not living without pain or suffering; but is the mastery within, to embody peace, joy, compassion, kindness and love. God has created us for interdependence as God has created us in God’s image—the image of a divine fellowship and Divine love. We must find the divinity within and in a sense resurrect twice, once in the world, and then again after the world. We are to be Kenosis, which in Eastern Christian theology means to empty oneself and become entirely receptive of God’s Divine will.
We all are aware that death will come eventually. The important questions are: What are we seeking in this life? What is our faith? How much do we trust? Are we willing to be authentically our Divine selves and through intimacy share that with others without limitation? In this way, we begin our own resurrection. This is our transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, from crawling on the earth to flying freely.
With the passing of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist monk and peace campaigner who brought mindfulness to the West, the world has lost another mentor. Every time we lose someone who helps us live and act in accordance with our highest good, it is a tremendous loss to the world. Martin Luther King. Nelson Mandela. Bishop Desmond Tutu. Thich Nhat Hanh. Orest Bedrij. Although they are no longer on this earthly plane, their inspiration lives on.
Mentors are very important to me. They inspire me to be better in every way. I celebrate their life, I praise their presence and spirit, and I integrate their teachings into the core of my being, so that I can become what God intended me to be.
“The glory of God is the communion of all things fully alive” ~ The Irenaeus’s axiom
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an American Baptist minister, had a gift for capturing the hearts and minds of people with his homily-like discourses. His speeches—considered some of the most iconic of the 20th century— had a profound effect on the national consciousness.
In his book Strength to Love, published in 1963, King wrote: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
As individuals, we all have challenges in life. The question is, how will we respond?
During this Christmas season, as I meditate on the image of the innocent, vulnerable baby Jesus, I am reminded of the opportunity for spiritual renewal. I think most of us can relate on some level, even those who do not identify themselves as Christians. Perhaps it is simply the idea of birth and a chance to begin again that calls to us, that gives us hope as this year comes to a close and a New Year beckons.
At the surface there is really nothing glamorous about Christmas. Do you ever wonder what courage, trust and faith Mary and Joseph had? We have Joseph breaking the law, knowing what he should do with a seemingly “adulterous woman,” but he doesn’t divorce Mary as the Law clearly tells him to do, even though he has no direct way of knowing that the baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit [Matthew 1:18–24]. Think about the fact that they were homeless – born in a stable surrounded by unknown Shepherds and animals. What is the meaning of all this? And what does this have to do with me?
Inspired by the purity of the baby Jesus, I reflect on the scripture from Matthew 18:3, where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Of course, as we mature, we must take on the responsibilities of adulthood. But all too often, along the way we become focused solely on worldly life. Our behavior and our choices are influenced by the people who are most important to us. In the past, it was parents, friends, and teachers. Today, we have a great many more connections through social media and the internet. These influences mold us into who we are. Along the way, we are prone to losing our innocence, and if we are not aware, we can also lose our potential for divinity.
The biblical creation story in the Torah (Old Testament) states, “Let us make humans in our image” (Genesis 1:26). The plural pronoun is the first hint that we are going to be brought into a relational, participatory, and shared life. The secret is planted within our deepest identity and slowly reveals itself. Then, for the most part, we turn away until our life as we know it comes close to the end.
Father Richard Rohr views religion’s purpose as reminding us of who we truly are: “The essential work of religion is to help us recognize and recover the divine image in ourselves and everything else too. Whatever we call it, this ‘image of God’ is absolute and unchanging. There is nothing we can do to increase or decrease it. It is not ours to decide who has it or does not have it. It is a pure and total gift, given equally to all.”
Contemplation Leads Us to Truth
Contemplation teaches us how to observe our own small mind and, frankly, to see how inadequate it is to the task in front of us. As Eckhart Tolle says, 98% of human thought is “repetitive and pointless.”
“Why do you look to one another for approval instead of the approval that comes from the one God?” (John 5:44). So many of us accept our self-image from within a system of false images. Whether we describe ourselves as smart, strong, good looking, or a loser—all are just words created by humans. This will never work. We must find our true self hidden within—that Divine image we are made in. St. Teresa of Ávila envisioned God telling her, “If you wish to find Me, in yourself seek Me.”
The one who is spirit took on flesh for all eternity. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, “It is really, I suggest, a timeless truth about God, that human nature, and the human experience of weakness and sleep and ignorance, are somehow included in his whole divine life.” Jesus had to be made like us in every way (Hebrews 2:17). His body is not insignificant.
Transformation through Love
So, I ask the question, “Why? And what does this have to do with me?” We all have some kind of image of God, but how do we know these are not false images? I believe we cannot begin to find the answer until we are willing to be reached by an all-transforming movement of love. This is based in trust, to be willing to let go and let be. As Meister Eckhart says, “For the person who has learned to let go and let be, nothing can ever get in the way again.”
Whether you are Christian or not, we can start with an image of the baby Jesus, the ultimate expression of God’s humility, and let go of all the garbage we carry. Christmas to me is a reminder that God became human so that we may become Divine. Our DNA is divine, and the divine indwelling is never earned by any behavior, group membership, ritual, or hiding from it (“Hiding from God” Genesis 3:8, “How did you know you were naked?” Genesis 3:11). When we don’t see ourselves as Divine, we can easily instead experience nakedness, vulnerability, guilt, shame, and rebellion. We must rise above, recognize, and realize (see Romans 11:6; Ephesians 2:8–10) and thus fall in love with the God within and share it.
Our Lady of Vladimir: The Virgin of Tenderness
Our Lady of Vladimir, my personal favorite icon, also known as Vladimir Mother of God, and the Theotokos of Vladimir, is a 12th-century Byzantine icon depicting the Virgin and Child.
Icons are images of a sacred person or scene used in the Eastern churches of the Christian world. True icons are the culmination of a long period of prayer, meditation, and fasting undertaken by the artist. In this way, the artist is brought close in spirit to God. Thus, icons are often called “a meeting of heaven and earth” or “windows into heaven.”
This icon, depicting the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ nestled against her cheek, is also known as “The Virgin of Tenderness.” From antiquity, Mary has been called “Theotokos” or “God-Bearer” (Mother of God). The Theotokos is the most elevated human being in the Eastern and Western church. She is the ultimate example of the human capacity to surrender, trusting in God and following that trust.
May each of us begin again and truly live, believing that we are made in the image of God. Let us manifest selfless love, let us be the Light in the world, and with joy in our hearts, let us be of service to others. Let us truly reflect the birth of Christ in our souls. This Divine heart within is a spiritual portrait of the heart of the universe: strongly aglow with the divine fire, beaming light in every direction, and at the same time open because it is wounded.
Wishing a Joyous Christmas, Winter Solstice, belated Chanukah, and a Happy New Year to you all and our world. May our prayers be our words in deeds, and may our earth be made very peaceful because of each of us.