Break Habits: Stay Woke | August 27, 2023 Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton
Back in 1976, the first class I took at William Smith College in Geneva, New York was taught by a man named, Eugen Baer. I have included a transcript of a Baccalaureate Address he delivered on May 12, 2018 entitled, Stay Woke. Baer was a Swiss immigrant and I later found out that he had been a Capuchin monk before becoming my professor. I don’t remember much from my younger life, but I do remember his class, when he told us that we needed to “continually break habits”. I don’t think I fully comprehended this advice since I was, at the time, fully immersed in so many “habits” that I later understood as “addictions.
Since that time, I have come to understand his words in the context of my life. I think my later connection with Matthew Fox was part of this same understanding. Fox writes of the spontaneity of creativity, which I think is what Baer was talking about. If we become mired in our habits, we are unable to be open to the spirit of life…the voice in our being that says, “keep searching” and “keep growing”. Of this gift of creativity and imagination Fox wrote:
Creativity and imagination are not frosting on a cake: They are integral to our sustainability. They are survival mechanisms. They are the essence of who we are. They constitute our deepest empowerment.
The absolute primacy of our ability to create has become clear to me in my own life. Without exercising my role as a creator, I become dried up…part of the shriveled barrenness spoken of by Hildegard of Bingen…
Now in the people that were meant to be green there is no more life of any kind. There is only shriveled barrenness.
When I am unable to use my daily experience as the raw materials for my role as a co-creator, this greenness, this veriditas, as Hildegard would put it, is dormant and barren.
Otto Rank, the Austrian psychoanalyst and philosopher, said when referring to neurosis, a common term for behavioral health issues of his time, that in this state of neurosis:
…the creative expression of will is a negative one,
resting on the denial of the creator role.
I have seen this phenomenon in so many individuals throughout my life. When we are deadened…when there is a shriveled barrenness of our being, we deny our creator role…we deny that we are meant to be co-creators with our creator…to be the creative urge of the all-pervading presence in the here and now.
We are indeed meant to be evidence in our own here and now of the divine. The Great Spirit is meant to move in the hand in a way that life takes on the shape of justice. It is evidence of our deepest empowerment, as Fox points out. Hildegard often spoke of our role as co-creators…as part of an orchestra…or a chord…
The marvels of God are not brought forth from one’s self. Rather, it is more like a chord, a sound that is played. The tone does not come out of the chord itself, but rather through the touch of the musician.
And it is, I suspect, the touch of the musician that is needed in order for God themselves to be empowered.
If this is true on an individual level, then how much more is this true collectively. This shriveled barrenness is not only a personal reality, but becomes our shared reality. Hildegard does not mince words…
The winds are burdened by the utterly awful stink of evil, selfish goings-on. Thunderstorms menace. The air belches out the filthy uncleanliness of the peoples. The earth should not be injured! The earth must not be destroyed!
And it is, of course, our shared responsibility to use our gifts of creativity and imagination to right these wrongs…to point to these evil, selfish goings-on that are the result of our collective unawareness…our inability to break habits…habits of comfort. So, if we are empowered by our ability to create…to imagine a better world, then we do have to break these habits, as my professor pointed out. In order to become open to the Spirit of Life…to the flow of life, we must break habits of the mind as well.
I was talking to someone the other day about religion and spirituality. This person stated that they did not believe in God at all and that this had to do with their family history. All four grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust. In a way I could understand this viewpoint…what kind of God would allow such atrocities to happen? This got me to thinking. If we do not have God…or at least the Creator in our life, what do we do in times of suffering…who or what do we lean on in times of need? And what does this mean for our ability to break habits…to stop engaging in unhealthy behaviors that weaken us…that keep us from our vital role as co-creators…as creative beings who are able to imagine a better world?
Well, there were a lot of thoughts triggered by this person’s outlook. I am not unsympathetic. I have heard many people say that God was not there when they needed them. Still, I am concerned that if we do not have a spiritual center…something not necessarily outside of ourselves, but a kind of power that is in the world…perhaps even a power that created the magnificent beauty of the forest, the flower, the dog, the lion, the mountains and the sea, then what is left? My fear is that what is left is the human alone and this concerns me. It is reminiscent of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. I think we know where this belief has gotten us. Instead, in one of the most supportive programs of our times, Alcoholics (Narcotics) Anonymous, we are counseled to see this spiritual power as something that we can learn from…a touchstone of change…of the breaking of those habits that my professor spoke of…and of course the breaking of our habits of comfort…using fossil fuels, buying disposable goods, our blindness to the consequences of our personal and collective behavior. We are, as Hafiz says, here for the sake of the Creator…our Beloved. He wrote:
For your sake we are here, not for our own. Why should I ever complain about working in the shop where you did? And the table, earth, where you are – isn’t that good enough for me?
Your legs stretched out across every particle of space I might ever encounter…
For your sake, Beloved, we are here, not for our own, no matter what directions our thoughts and actions may turn,
When dawn pulls the veil from my eye, the scent of your breath will enter me forever, and lift every sail.
Hafiz knew that we needed the lift for our sail when life becomes difficult…he knew that the scent of the breath of the Divine is important for an authentic life…a life lived with the deepest empowerment of our Creator...a life in which we can be aware of the Spirit of Life…the Holy Spirit that Hildegard wrote about. Of this Holy Spirit she wrote:
Holy Spirit is
Root of all being.
Purifier of all impurity.
Absolver of all faults.
Balm of all wounds.
Radiant life, worthy of all praise,
The Holy Spirit resurrects and awakens everything that is.
May we be strengthened by the primacy of our role as co-creators with this Spirit and may we be awakened to Spirit of Life that beckons to us…offering new ways of doing things that reflect who we are.