What day is it today?

Today is August 6.

Three “days” connect with the date of August 6: in the traditional Christian calendar with the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ (there are some contemporary commemorations at other times of the year); with Hiroshima Day; and today in Vancouver, because the Sunday of the holiday weekend falls this year on August 6, with the Pride parade–three very different observances of a single calendar date. And is there, I wonder, a way of linking these three very different ways of observing the day? Continue reading

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Objections to Omar’s award

Predictably, the “nattering nabobs of negativism” (thank you, Spiro Agnew) have crawled out from under their rocks to criticize the (in my view, none too generous) award of $10.5 million to Omar Khadr in recompense for his years of torture and imprisonment. I note that a number of these voices come from the Conservative Party, which is making use of the award to poke at the Liberal government.

They call him a confessed murderer, and so he is; and so would you and I be if we had found ourselves in his situation. This was his choice: plead not guilty, certainly be found guilty by the kangaroo court (so named in the Globe this morning) and rot in an American prison for the rest of his life; or, plead guilty, which would open the way to a transfer to Canada, where our “kinder, gentler” justice system would in due course release him, which it has.

A number of others who took the same route in the US have now appealed to have their ersatz convictions overturned; and all of them have had their appeals granted. Omar’s lawyer plans to enter the same appeal on Omar’s behalf.

Those of us who have met him know him to be a modest and gracious young man. He intends to train as a nurse, a vocation which will give him opportunities to give to his patients the kind of care which he was denied in Guantanamo. There is a lovely irony in this.

Go Omar!

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The national apology to Omar Khadr

A glorious moment! The government has acknowledged that Canada did not do right by its young citizen, Omar Khadr, and will compensate him and his lawyer, Dennis Edney, with $10,000,000.

Is this a lot of money? Given that Omar was in prison (and tortured) for 11 years in Guantanamo and was imprisoned for an additional two years back in Canada, and that he will share equally in the money with Dennis Edney, this works out to $385,000 a year–something less than numerous Canadian CEOs make–not a lot of money for what he went through. Let no one say that he has been overcompensated.

Before my thoughts about Omar himself, two other stories.

In 2001, I visited Auschwitz: the experience left me numb. Later I visited Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam, and burst into tears.

A year or two ago, the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi appeared in the media. It unleashed a tidal wave of political and financial support for the further welcoming  of and support for Syrian refugees.

My point, of course: the difference between a faceless tragedy, and a tragedy with one human face.

I am grateful, as a Canadian citizen, that I was challenged to demonstrate my support for Omar (whom I have had the privilege of meeting). There has to be a ripple effect from his experience. Never again, I trust, will our government fail to protect a citizen enmeshed in a foreign nightmare.

Or have I spoken too soon?  Immediately I think of Hassan Diab, a Canadian citizen, who for eight years has languished in the French legal system. Anyone who has paid attention to his case will recognize that he is innocent of the terrorist-style murder with which he is charged. A parallel with Omar: in his case an American citizen died, and someone had to pay. Omar was the only one on “the other side” left alive, and so he was picked for this role. In Hassan’s case, a French citizen died, and again, someone had to pay. In his case, he was arrested on the flimsiest connection of his handwriting with that of the killer. 

Over now to Justin Trudeau: read the whole story at https://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2017/05/23/how-a-canadian-professors-life-became-a-horror-show-fahmy.html

A word about Dennis Edney. I first heard him speak some years ago here in Vancouver. At the end of his talk, I asked him what would happen to Omar when he was released. “He’ll come to my house and live with me and my family.” I remain astonished to this day at this man’s simplicity and generosity of spirit. He sustained Omar’s case for more than 15 years pro bono, not receiving a penny. I had not thought ahead to what would happen for him financially when this day of resolution came; but that he and Omar will share in the money equally fits perfectly with their relationship, which has become one of father and son. I hope to be part of a team of people who will nominate him for the Order of Canada.

And another word of thanks to Kathy Copps and her colleagues in the Free Omar campaign, for keeping his situation alive in the media. Well done!

Pulling this together. My point is that a situation like Omar’s or Hassan’s offers to each of us as individual citizens an opportunity to contribute to the sum total of justice in the world. May we seize on every such opportunity to exercise committed citizenship.

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Temporary and not so temporary . . .

In my last blog, I offered a parallel between the short reign of the Emperor Julian (361-63 CE) and what many of us hope will be the short occupancy of the American presidency by Donald Trump. Julian’s reign was a temporary hiatus in Roman history; Trump’s administration (in the Globe and Mail this morning he was called a mafioso) will, we trust, be a temporary phenomenon.

Some of those who commented on this blog, however, pointed out that even if/when Trump goes, the angry and alienated cohort that put him in power will remain. This cohort is largely composed of older white males who feel, angrily, that the American dream has passed them by; that they have been excluded by “the elites” from what they deserve as citizens.

Point taken. And then the riposte to it is that as never in recent history there has appeared a resistance movement. Four states, 175 cities and a large number of universities have formed an alliance focused on American support for the Paris Accord. This is something I find very hopeful. That alliance will also need to do what it can to respond to the legitimate gripes of the cohort that supported Trump.

Resistance, then. I have just submitted a ms. to a publisher entitled Thomas Merton’s Day of a Stranger: Solitude as Resistance. Merton has been called by Irish writer Gerry McFlynn “a theologian of resistance,” and well-deserved that sobriquet is. From his monastery and hermitage there issued a steady stream of writings calling for resistance to the toxicity of society, a malaise surely worse now than it was in his lifetime (he died in 1968).

And just now I have watched and listened to a spoken-word poem on “Love and Anger” offered by my friend Christina Kinch, co-ordinator of the Contemplative Justice Network of the United Church in BC. Here’s the link . . .

https://www.facebook.com/TogetherWeWorship/videos/1899585166965718/

I invite you to watch/listen to it, and use it as a stimulus to your own reflection on how resistance has found its place in your life. Energized by love and anger, resistance will move us past the temporary phenomenon of populist maladministration (yes, I’m thinking of the US, and this is Canada; but what the US does affects us all) to a better place, one in which real democracy is honored and practised.

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Trumpus Temporarius

In the year 313 of our era, the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, previously a prohibited religion, and launched the first Christian imperial dynasty.

All the emperors who succeeded him were Christians, until the accession of the Emperor Julian in 361. Never heard of him? Good, and may that be instructive in regard to this blog.

Julian was the last non-Christian ruler of the Roman Empire, and it was his desire to bring the Empire back to its ancient Roman values, in order, as he saw it, to save it from dissolution. He attempted to revive traditional Roman religious practices at the expense of Christianity. His anti-Christian sentiment caused him to be remembered as Julian the Apostate by the church.

He wanted to effect a permanent change in the empire, but in his short reign (361-63) was unable to do that. More to the point, he was on the wrong side of history. Christianity was growing exponentially, and there was not enough energy in the old Roman religion to counter it.

Still with me?  Good, because I’m about to make my point.

Barack Obama spoke in Montréal this week to a rapturous audience of 6000 people. Without mentioning the name of his successor, he asserted his conviction that the Trump presidency was a temporary thing. In positioning himself against the need to tackle climate change, and withdrawing the US from the Paris Accord, Donald Trump placed himself foolishly, quixotically and unnecessarily against the forward movement of history.

It is Obama’s conviction, and mine, and, I trust, yours, that the present US administration is a temporary phenomenon, a historical blip. Twenty years from now (may it be so!) fewer people will remember Trump than remember Julian the Apostate.

Let us encourage one another with this thought!

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The gates of Hell

Sometime in the nineties I took a group of SFU students down to the Ground Zero peace centre in Poulsbo, Washington. GZ was started in the eighties by Jim and Shelley Douglass, longtime peace activists–Jim was a friend of Thomas Merton.

GZ is very close to the Trident submarine base at Bangor. (This is the west-coast Trident base; there is an east-coast base at Norfolk, Virginia.) There are 24 submarines at Bangor; each one carries 408 times the firepower of the nuclear weapon that was dropped on Hiroshima. Each single submarine carries enough firepower to destroy all the major cities of the northern hemisphere–and there are 24 of them.

Our first morning at GZ we joined members of its community in their weekly leafletting vigil at the gates of the Trident base. As workers go into the base, they are handed a leaflet–or sometimes a chocolate chip cookie or, on or near February 14, a valentine. Thousands go in and out every day; and each year in the nineties (I don’t know if this is still true) one worker would quit as a result of the GZ leafletting.

This visit got me onto the GZ mailing list; and every few months I get its newsletter. In that I regularly read how the GZ community has since its beginning maintained a steady and faithful witness against nuclear weapons: against their invention, their design, their construction, their transportation, their being readied for use, and, most ominous, the prospect of their use.

Here is an excerpt from the most recent newsletter (April 2017). It comes from Leonard Eiger, chair of the GZ communication and outreach committee, and requires no comment from me.

The end of the Cold War brought with it a historic opportunity for the US to begin serious negotiations with Russia leading to nuclear disarmament. Instead, our nation continued to pursue nuclear dominance, and as a result, over 25 years later we are entering into what is unarguably a new Cold War with Russia.

Trident is now three times more deadly than ever before. The US is rapidly moving toward production of a new ballistic missile submarine fleet that will be even more sophisticated than its predecessor. . . .  How long can we go building newer and more sophisticated (and deadly) nuclear weapons systems before they end up being used either accidentally or intentionally? . . . How can our nations’ leaders, in good conscience, continue to put humanity at risk of nuclear extinction?

Let me pick up on his use of the word “nations,” plural. The US is not the only country contributing to this madness. Canada, with its reluctance to speak and act in direct opposition to this situation, is contributing to its continuance–a sin of omission.

As many of you know, I spent most of the eighties and early nineties working at issues related to nuclear disarmament. On the basis of that experience, I am distressed to say that in my view the world is in greater danger of nuclear war today than we were during the Cold War. Both the US and North Korea are headed by maniacs, not to put too fine a point on it. From Donald Trump’s public comments on the subject I can only conclude that he is, as the kids used to say, “not clear on the concept.”

So where to? As Canadians, we need to put pressure on our political leaders, asking them to place Canada firmly on the side of nuclear disarmament, to support the many initiatives under way which are trying to move us to nuclear sanity. Then if Canada does step up to the plate, to support its progressive policy in this regard. A good way to do this is to support the Rideau Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank headed by Peggy Mason, former Canadian ambassador for disarmament at the UN (1989-1994) – rideauinstitute.ca

A final word: my title. Standing there at the Trident gates early in the morning, a word of Jesus came to me: “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against you” (Matthew 16:18). Yes, I said to myself: I am standing at the gates of Hell. It was only later that I realized what “prevail” implies. It implies that we are battering at the gates of Hell, and that sooner or later, they will not prevail against us. They will fall. This blogpost is an invitation to you to join with others in the assault on the gates of Hell which our historic moment requires of us.

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Happy Easter: “the Alleluias are back”

“‘The Alleluias are back’: Thomas Merton’s Easters.” The Merton Journal 19.1 (Eastertide 2012), 3-5.

Fiona Gardner, then editor of The Merton Journal (UK), asked me, somewhat late in the publication schedule for the Easter 2012 issue, to write an Easter-related reflection. Merton’s journals provided all the references I needed, and I was able in short order to send this item to her. The title refers to the liturgical custom of not saying or singing “Alleluia” during the pre-Easter season of Lent. Thus, with Easter, “the Alleluias are back.”

Happy Easter, then, to my Christian friends, and to others, a glimpse of what Easter means to Christians. The Easter bunny doesn’t really say it all!

“The Alleluias are back.” Thus Thomas Merton, at the last Easter of his life, 1968.[1] Lent’s long shadows have departed, and with Easter and its alleluias have once again come the gifts of the new fire, the new light, and the new life.

In the northern hemisphere, of course, the new-life dimension of Easter is supported by the season. At Easter in 1948, Merton rejoices in the blossoming of the apple trees. “The willow is full of green. Things are in bud,” he adds.[2] In 1965, he strikes the same note.

Peace and beauty of Easter morning: sunrise, deep green grass,soft winds, the woods turning green on the hills across the valley (and here [the hermitage] too). I got up and said the old office of Lauds, and there was a wood-thrush singing fourth-tone mysteriesin the deep ringing pine wood … behind the hermitage.[3]

The night before he had gone down to the abbey for the Easter Vigil by the light of the moon, and come back “also by full moonlight, the woods being perfectly silent, and the moon so strong one could hardly see any stars.”[4] With grass and trees and birds and moon and stars, as well as with his brothers in the community, and with Christians everywhere, Thomas Merton, one with creation, celebrates the resurrection of Jesus now to be called Christ.

Easter itself, however, is meaningless, as we know, without Good Friday. Merton holds them together in a journal entry from 1949: “Good Friday and Easter,” he says,” the center of everything.”[5] Curiously, on the afternoon of the Easter Day at the end of his first visit to Gethsemani in 1941), he makes the Stations of the Cross,[6] which strikes me as strange and out of sequence. But he was at a moment in his life when he was hungry for the active liturgical expression of his developing sense of vocation, which, with the apple trees, was coming into full bloom.

In the years following, the regular sequence is restored: and his celebration of the resurrection is grounded in his engagement with the Cross. He offers himself to be crucified with Jesus, so that he may rise with Jesus. In “A Christian Looks at Zen,” he gives us a very deep word about this.

… it is essential to remember that for a Christian “the word of the      Cross” is nothing theoretical, but a stark and existential experience of union with Christ in His death in order to share in His resurrection. To fully “hear” and “receive” the word of the Cross means much more than simple assent to the dogmatic proposition that Christ died for our sins. It means to be “nailed to the Cross with Christ,” so that the ego-self is no longer the principle of our deepest actions, which now proceed from Christ living in us. “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:19-20).[7]

At Easter in 1948 he had been in the monastery for seven years, entering all that time into this paschal mystery, which welds Good Friday and Easter into one indivisible reality, the mystery which offers us the template not only for our personal lives but for the life of society, the planet and the cosmos: death and resurrection. Here is what he said at that time.

Easter is like what it will be entering eternity, when you suddenly,     peacefully, clearly recognize all your mistakes as well as all that you did well: everything falls into place.[8]

Mistakes and death, all we do well and resurrection, Good Friday and Easter, yes: “everything falls into place.”

[1] The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey, ed. Patrick Hart. (The Journals of Thomas Merton, v. 7, 1967-68.) San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999, 81.

[2] Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk and Writer, ed. Jonathan Montaldo. (The Journals of Thomas Merton, v. 2, 1941-52.) San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, 193.

[3] Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage, ed. Robert E. Daggy. (The Journals of Thomas Merton, v. 5, 1963-65.) San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998, 231.

[4] DWL, 232.

[5] ES, 303.

[6] Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation, ed. Patrick Hart. (The Journals of Thomas Merton, v. 1, 1939-41.) San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995, 356.

[7] In Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, ed. and introd. Lawrence S. Cunningham, fwd. Patrick Hart, pref. Anne E. Carr. New York: Paulist Press, 1992, 418.

[8] ES, 193.

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Shrove Bloody Tuesday

Decided to add the “bloody,” because I have been watching, indeed inhaling, the BBC series, “Sherlock”–Sherlock Holmes updated to the 21st century: just wanted to get your attention [ :) ].

So yes, today is Shrove Tuesday. My evening minder has promised pancakes and sausages. And why pancakes to mark the day? Because in medieval times, the day before Ash Wednesday was a day when the folk of those times used up all the foods which they were supposed to fast from (mainly eggs and sugar) during the fasting season of Lent, which starts tomorrow, Ash Wednesday. (My evening minder for tomorrow will be very kindly bringing me the ashes.) And the shrove part refers to the practice of being “shriven” in preparation for Lent, i.e., to make one’s confession and be absolved.

Speaking of Lent offers me the opportunity to say how much I admire the way Muslims practice their season of fasting, Ramadan. Christian observance of Lent in the West is a feeble thing by comparison. I am thinking here of Canadian Muslims, of course. As members of a minority community, they are motivated to a disciplined practice of the norms of their religion. Christians, being a majority in Canada, feel no such motivation; and so for most of us, even the church-involved, Lent passes quickly to little effect.

In December, when I thought my time on the planet was very short, I took advantage of a visit from the priest whom I have asked to preside at my obsequies to hear–not my confession, but a recounting of my regrets. Having come to my venerable age, temptations to the more egregious varieties of personal sin as such are few and far between; but I did want to let go of my regrets in a formal, serious way.

So rather than think about personal sin, I am inclined to focus on social sin–structural, corporate, institutional sin. It would be wonderful if our society, the Christians among us at least, could use Lent to deal with the aspects of our society that separate us from our social well-being. (I’m thinking of a theological definition here, i.e., that sin in all its forms is separation–from God, neighbour and self.)

There are many social challenges, of course, and sometimes we can use that recognition to avoid dealing with any of them. Of all of these, the one issue that keeps catching my attention is child poverty. With a child-poverty rate of 18.2% (roughly one out of every five children in the nation–disgraceful), Canada ranks 21st out of 29 OECD countries; we are also 21st in the ranking of children’s overall physical and mental health, in which of course poverty is a determinant.

This Lent, could we combine a concern for child poverty with the fasting that is a major part of the Lenten tradition? Could we fast from watching TV (I’m not talking “Sherlock” here: it’s on Netflix) and use the time to save to study the issue? Dr Google is ready to help us with our research. Might small groups in a congregation or a neighbourhood make child poverty the focus of a Lenten study? I’m all in favour of prayer and bible study, the staples of Lenten study; but to incorporate research and action on child poverty would make concrete what the Bible and prayer point us toward.

And with these thoughts, I wish you, if not a happy Lent, then a challenging, energizing and productive Lent. Your celebration of Easter will be all the better for it.

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45 years and away they go . . .

Yes, I have come to the time when the ongoing challenge of acquisition and relinquishment has tipped, permanently, I hunch, in the direction of relinquishment.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Judith Hardcastle bought some spanking new packing boxes. She brought them over so that I could fill them with my Thomas Merton collection. I have been collecting books by and about Merton since 1972, when, just before starting grad school, I decided I would focus my grad studies on Merton. I got the idea to do this when, in a Roman Catholic bookstore in Spokane, Washington, I ran across a crazy little book called The Man in the Sycamore Tree: The Good Life and Hard Times of Thomas Merton, written by Merton’s Columbia University friend, Ed Rice. It does have some crazy stuff in it, but there was also enough good stuff in it to make me realize that in the reconstruction of Christian spirituality which the times were requiring of us, Merton’s contribution would be critically important.

Why? Because he combined work on personal spirituality with a very clear parallel focus on social spirituality–justice, peace and the integrity of creation. He stands on the boundary between Christianity’s past and its future (we all do, come to think of it, but he engaged it in a very creative way) and on the boundary between Christianity and the other major faith-traditions, Buddhism in particular. He was a holistic thinker and writer of astonishing creativity and productivity. He published some 60 titles before he died (in 1968) and has had published 40 more (with a little help from his friends) since he died. When Pope Francis spoke to the US congress in 2015, he listed Merton along with Dorothy Day, MLK Jr, and Abraham Lincoln as four great Americans worthy of the emulation of all.

So then I went to Toronto, found that a course on Merton was being taught at St Michael’s, and I was launched. I did my master’s and PhD on Merton, and started publishing my own contributions to the great pile of secondary literature about him that was quickly accumulating. When it was formed in 1989, I joined the International Thomas Merton Society, serving as president (the first non-American) in 2007-09. And–tremendous fun–I started leading or co-leading pilgrimages of a decidedly Chaucerian type to places associated with him: his birthplace in Prades, France; Rome, where he had an initial spiritual awakening in 1933, aged 18; Alaska, where he went to lead some retreats in 1968; his home abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky (just learned a month ago that Gethsemani is the French spelling of the name of the garden in which Jesus was arrested: the abbey was founded by a French community);  and New York, where he became a Roman Catholic and where, at Columbia, he discovered his enormous capacity for work.

Which brings me to the packing boxes. A few years I sent an initial batch of Merton books which I seldom used to the Thomas Merton Reading Room at the Vancouver School of Theology, in its genesis a project of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada. That left me with about 200 books, which with the help of friends, I packed up and put them all in Judith’s boxes. After doing so, it felt somewhat “rash, unadvised and sudden” (somewhere in Shakespeare), and so I retrieved four books: Seeds of Contemplation, in its hopsacking binding, the first Merton book I looked at, in the Dunbar Library when I was 15; The Seven Storey Mountain, his best-selling autobiography, first edition, falling apart until I recently had it rebound by Vancouver Island hermit, Charles Brandt; Thomas Merton’s French Poems, because it is rare and valuable; and my most recent Merton book, Thomas Merton and the Noonday Demon: The Camaldoli Correspondence (which I recently learned will be translated into Italian).

So there they sat for a few days in their boxes in my living room, staring at me somewhat reproachfully, and giving me little vibrations of abandonment. Then, the second coming of Judith, and off they went. She is having them catalogued and their value estimated. After that they will go to the TMRR. The librarians will decide which ones they need for their collection, and the remainder will go to the Regent College bookstore, for sale, or if not saleable, for free distribution to students.

For a day or two the emptiness where they had sat loomed large in my awareness. I confess to more than one pang as I saw them being wheeled away on the dolly, because they represented 45 years of reflection and writing, a huge chunk of my life in both temporal and intellectual terms. I’m trusting they will all find good homes.

Merton and I have become good friends over those 45 years. He regularly turns his readers into friends. I would also say that he became my spiritual director in absentia, helping me find my way forward on the spiritual journey in this confusing time of history.

So thanks, Tom. It’s been great.

 

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Zen and the enlighenment of Christians

I have often been asked to recommend an introductory book–to Thomas Merton, to meditation, to Christianity. Recently a friend lent me a book she had enjoyed: Resurrecting Jesus–Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic, by Adyashanti. He is a teacher in the Zen tradition, and writes books on spirituality.

What I found most interesting about this book was its perspective on conversion, or changing one’s religion. The conservative segments of Christianity favour conversion, with the ideal being a world in which everyone was a Christian. The liberal segments typically take a pluralistic view, with all major traditions granted respect, and no expectation of conversion to Christianity–although of course in a free country, everyone is free to change religions if they so wish. (I say “major” traditions: I’m not ready to respect Scientology or the Moonies.)

Adyashanti takes a different view. He wants Christians to remain Christian, *and* to open themselves and experience enlightenment. In other words, for him, enlightenment is the important thing, and it doesn’t matter in which tradition it occurs so long as it does occur. I find this very appealing. He holds before us a vision of the major traditions, the members of which live lives of inner experience of divinity, an enlightened state in which we know ourselves as divine.  Here’s a paragraph that expresses this point of view.

Today we’re in need of a mythos that shows us what real, engaged spirituality looks like. The words of the Jesus story have inspired people for the better part of two thousand years. And yet, those words and images need us to breathe new life into them so that they once again come to life within us and reveal heaven here on earth. For Jesus the Christ walks amongst us even now, in the depths of our own consciousness, proclaiming the reality of eternal life that is present in the core of our being. 

He says that we need to “pour ourselves into the story,” “become the story in ourselves,” “breathe the all-transforming spirit of new life,” and thereby “reclaim the original power it once had before it became weighed down by centuries of egoic misunderstanding. When we become the story, we resurrect it from all of the old ways, . . . as Jesus had intended it to do.”

Enlightenment, or, in the Zen tradition, satori, is what he wants for everyone. He wants Buddhists to be enlightened while remaining Buddhist, Christians while remaining Christian, and so on. The larger vision this holds before us is of a family of religious traditions, their members living enlightened spiritual lives, working together in love, joy and peace. Now that I think about it, this is very close to what Thomas Merton might say.

Enlightenment for all: may it be so!

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