It was a lovely Sunday afternoon. You couldn’t ask for a nicer Spring day in Southern Alberta. On a whim, we decided we would pack a picnic lunch and head to a favourite spot we have. Not frequented by many other, this lovely coulee with wonderful geological formations is a great place to get away from it all and enjoy the afternoon together.
The time was not a disappointment at all! The weather was perfect, everyone was in a great mood, the wild croci were exploding into bloom and the prairie winter and wind had uncovered some new rocks to pick through. We meandered throughout the coulee walking for hours stopping at every blooming wildflower, sandstone cliff, and outcrop of fancy coloured rocks. We laughed, we took our time and our sons actually enjoyed the art of being slow, of taking time to notice what was around them, what they stood in the middle of, and all that was taking place in front of their eyes. It was great for Andrea (my wife) and I to do as well.
We returned to our mini-van for the return trip home and no sooner had the doors closed than there was a litany of thank you’s from the back seat. Our boys had enjoyed themselves so thoroughly they couldn’t contain their gratitude. As we were on our way home, the others had either drifted off to sleep or were engaged in a good book, and I was struck with a familiar feeling. A feeling of deep satisfaction, contentment, and joy. The source of this joy was all that I have described - the pure joy of being with my family, a lovely day, vibrant wildflowers, adventure, laughter, and wonder with what we were a part of in Red Rock Coulee!
Once more this had me reflecting on contentment, what brings authentic joy and contentment. I immediately thought of what we culturally think will make us happy - the drive for money and power as an end in itself. Ideas of fame, the good opinion of others and the position, self-promotion, power, and status that comes with all that. I thought of how fickle and shallow these cultural/societal paths to happiness are; so long on promises and short substance. This kind of happiness is elusive and short-lived and in my cynical moments nothing more than a metaphoric carrot to keep us performing, consuming and conforming to a culture that thrives on consumption; consumption of goods, services, the environment and the lives of others in a vain attempt to satisfy our deepest longings. These things may provide some excitement but no lasting peace or contentment. This kind of happiness is akin to junk food and how it tastes good with its high salt and super fatty enticement but often leaves us hungry and often sick. This self-glorification, self-promotion simply doesn’t lead to the kind of peace and contentment it promises.
One the other side, we have the kinds of experiences of spending a wonderful afternoon with family. Laughing, exploring, discovering, creating, and dreaming together. An authentic, healthy genuine relationship can bring some of the deepest joy. Add to this taking time to notice what is happening around us - the laugh of a child, the blooming of wildflowers, the fresh spring wind, and the warmth of the sun. I am talking about the pure joy of being fully engaged in a job that you love - that allows you to express yourself in building, creating, or serving. The kind of contentment that is found in something that is really bigger than ourselves. This is living soulfully; it is not the consumption of life or the detached observing of life but the posture of being a part of what you are doing and where you are. Learning to be aware of what is happening all around you. Learning to see God in all things!
(God in all things is not in a pantheistic sense - that the rock is God - not at all! Just as we can get a sense of the artist from their art or a sense of the musician by listening to their music, we can get a sense of the Father, the Creator at work in all of life. The piece of art is not the artist; the music is not the musician but rather reflections of them.)
Many folks are painfully aware of the empty promises of our societal carrots of contentment and yet, we seem so susceptible to the same old carrot simply repackage with slick marketing - promising that this time it will be different. I am reminded of the adage that defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome! The field of positive psychology continues to affirm what the Christian mystics have known for years, contentment and authentic happiness cannot be found in self-promotion and self-glorification but rather in living for something bigger than ourselves; being a part of, a participator in something bigger than ourselves and these things are often the simple things we live oblivious of every day.
Sadly, we are often so pre-occupied with self-glorification, the having to climb the success ladder, the manic indiscriminate consumption of life, along with its maddening breakneck pace that we miss the deeply satisfying things that we take for granted or miss altogether. We are like the characters in this little parable inspired by Tony de Mello, SJ:
There is a train that makes regularly scheduled runs through the majestic Canadian Rockies. The view is breath taking; rugged snow capped peaks, expansive glaciers and pristine, crystal clear lakes and rivers. People travel from all over the world and pay a healthy fare to take this trip.
A story is told of a delegation of “important people” who boarded this train. They scurried about, getting on board and stowing their carry-ons. They immediately lowered the blinds, and oblivious to the astounding scenery just outside their window, proceeded to argue rigorously about who has the best seat.
Jesus replied, “Yes, you have followed me. In the re-creation of the world, when the Son of Man will rule gloriously, you who have followed me will also rule, starting with the twelve tribes of Israel. And not only you but anyone who sacrifices home, family, fields—whatever—because of me will get it all back a hundred times over, not to mention the considerable bonus of eternal life. This is the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.” Mt 19:28-30. The Message
Jesus invites us into a soulful, connected way of living. He challenges the cultural status-chasing, self-promotion, burnout, hierarchical systems when He says “anyone who sacrifices home, family, fields—whatever”. In context, all of these are status and rank things. We give these demarkations up and embrace real life. One produces rest and the other toil. One gives life that can’t be lost, the other consumes life with empty promises and burn out. Soulful living yields a life 100 times richer, deeper more genuinely fulfilling. So much so, those that we culturally think are first will, in the final analysis, be last!
- Think about a time that you were praised, honoured or won a title in some way. Think about your feelings. Consider how long these feelings lasted.
- Reflect on a time when you were thoroughly engrossed and enlivened in something you love doing? A time when you were enjoying nature, a close friend, enjoyed a beautiful story, encountered something very lovely, or felt connected to something bigger than yourself. Contrast these feelings with the feeling in the previous reflection. Notice any difference?
- How much of what you say, do think, dress like, work for is influenced by the societal values and self-promotion for the acceptance, power, and prestige?
- How much do you do that is actually free and authentic? For the deep sense of satisfaction that is contained in being a part of the experience, not just the outcome or reward.
These are important questions to sit within prayerful reflection. Where are we getting life from?