resolving through art

“I like the feeling of being able to confront an experience and resolve it as art.”

—Eudora Welty, novelist

Do you have an art form that you enjoy? If not, is there one you want to try? Photography, Music, Sketching, Writing fiction or poetry? Your creative path may even be in your garden or your kitchen.  Doing art can increase our awareness of the beauty and coherence of the ordinary.

snacks by lynn

snacks by lynn

finishing things

In the end, it was as his old neighbor Lucio was always telling him: Lucio, who had lost his arm in the Spanish Civil War. The problem, Lucio would explain, wasn’t so much the missing arm as that when it happened he had a spider bite on it which he hadn’t finished scratching. And seventy years later, Lucio was still scratching away at the empty space. Something that isn’t finished with properly will irritate you forever.

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

I am very fond of the detective stories by the French anthropologist Fred Vargas. I enjoy her characters and the tone of her writing. This quote is from the latest one out in English, The Ghost Riders of Orderbec (Penguin paperback 2013).

peaches in love

peaches from michigan by lynn

peaches from michigan by lynn


photo by macrina wiederkehr

photo by macrina wiederkehr


Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu:
“All your teaching is centered on what has no use.”

Chuang Tzu replied:
“If you have no appreciation for what has no use
You cannot begin to talk about what can be used.
The earth for example, is broad and vast
But of all this expanse a man uses only a few inches
Upon which he happens to be standing.
Now suppose you suddenly take away
all that he is not actually using
So that, all around his feet a gulf
Yawns, and he stands in the Void
with nowhere solid except right under each foot:
How long will he be able to use what he is using?”

Hui Tzu said: “It would cease to serve any purpose.”

Chuang Tzu concluded:
“This shows the absolute necessity of what has ‘no use.’”

(From The Way of Chuang Tzu, transl. by Thomas Merton, 1965)

six impossible things before breakfast

art by lynn

art by lynn

At the farmers market in Michigan a few weeks ago, I bought a punnet of sweet carrots. On arriving home and unpacking them, I discovered these. Sometimes things we think are impossible are possible after all.

write right rite

art by lynn

art by lynn

Critique is necessary, but so often it can get in the way. Sometimes those most in need of critique are least likely to hear it. And those who are overly hard on themselves, seem to find criticism hidden everywhere.



Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in –

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
in their backs, the stretcher handles
slippery with sweat. And no let-up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltable
and raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

for the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
their slight lightheadedness and incredulity
to pass, those ones who had known him all along.

By Seamus Heaney from Human Chain (Faber and Faber, London 2010)


flowers from the farmers market by lynn

flowers from the farmers market by lynn


art by lynn

art by lynn

too many

art by lynn

art by lynn

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times.” – Thomas Merton


A song is unfixed in time and place (as distinct from the bodies it takes over). A song narrates a past experience.

When it is being sung, it fills the present. Stories do the same, but songs have another dimension which is uniquely theirs. A song, whilst filling the present, hopes to reach a listening ear, in some future somewhere. It leans forward, further and further. Songs lean forward. Without the persistence of this hope, songs, I believe, would not exist.

The tempo, the beat, the repetitions, construct a shelter from the flow of linear time. A shelter in which future, present and past can console, provoke, ironize and inspire one another.  Most songs being listened to across the world at this moment are recordings, not live performances.  And this means that the physical experience of sharing and coming together is less intense, but it is still there, it is present in the heart of the exchange and communication taking place.”

This is a quote from a BBC Radio 3 Documentary program essay by John Berger (I have an old book on my shelves by him: On Seeing.His writing has been described as “a listening voice”) Other art forms do what he is describing here, but music has special qualities.  It can surrounds us in a way that can be like an embrace, or touch us directly like the most intimate words of a friend.

the real work

art by lynn

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go

we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

By Wendell Berry

My favorite line in this poem is the final one.  Most of the beautiful music of the sound of water is made when it is impeded, obstructed somehow. Music made from what seem like obstructions in my life. But the other lines of the poem are important for me to hear too. Think of those people who are always totally sure of what to do next. They are not usually the wisest ones. What do we do when up to our hips in the mud?

representing reality

art by lynn

art by lynn

I have been reading a great book by the artist Ben Shahn, written in the 50’s entitled The Shape of Content. I find myself these days wondering why I do art, and what I am trying to do with it.  What is its purpose? Shahn was a wonderful graphic artist and his words inspire me.  When I was helping to find cover art for a book on the science of compassionate love, I offered this piece. The visual image on the cover was important. To pin compassionate love to the board like a butterfly was impossible. Visual art can stretch our thinking. It was a necessary complement to the scientific and analytic content of the book. I think somehow art can make a difference – that is one of the reasons I still do it.


For many people the word ‘God’ is the perfect word, and others are put off by the word and head towards the hills.  I came across this provocative passage by Wendy Beckett that seems to grasp some of the issues so well.

…I am wary of using the word ‘God’. Essentially, this is a meaningless word. No thoughts can encompass God. There is no box into which you can put Him. He, or for that matter, She, completely transcends any human concepts. When we say ‘God’, we are doing no more than pointing a finger. It is a directional word. Forced to give a definition, all I could say is that God is Reality so absolute that all other realities are relative.”

And she goes on to say later in a section entitled ‘Admirable Atheists’: “Sometimes I blush for those who think themselves Christian, and yet the God they worship is cruel, suspicious, punitive and watchful. Who could love such a God? If that is your idea of God, you are obliged by all the rules of morality and common sense to become an atheist.   I have the greatest admiration for atheists, because by definition they have rejected a false ‘God’. The true God, if you have the privilege of knowing, you cannot reject. Anybody who truly understands what God is cannot but believe and love.  There are no lapsed Catholics, no lapsed Christians, but there are very many, far too many, who thought they were Catholics, or Christians, but did not have the good fortune to be taught the truth about God. They looked at this hideous image and said that if it was true, they refused to believe. Too few move on to the next stage and wonder if, in fact, their image of God is not true, or to the stage beyond when they realize that, in actuality, it is not true. If they could accept that the picture they have is wrong from the start, it would bring them to search for the truth.” (Sister Wendy on Prayer, W. Beckett, Harmony Books, 2007, NY. pp 77, 83)

Religions, religious teachings, have much to be held accountable for, in the way ideas are presented.  But each of us also have responsibilities. We have taken easy shorthands or caricatures to represent reality. They may have worked at one time, but do not hold over the long haul.  And then we are disappointed when they do not work, and get fed up with the whole thing. We need to be willing to throw out the dirty bathwater, but save the baby.


Harold Wilke was a stately older man, and I was having a lively and personal conversation with him and others over cocktails before a meeting at the National Center for Rehabilitation Research in Washington DC years ago. I continued the conversation as I sat next to him at dinner. We had been eating for a while and chatting, and then I suddenly noticed that his fork and knife were being held by his white-gloved feet. He had no hands or arms.

The relaxed graciousness of his presence impressed me. If I did not have arms and hands I would miss so many things. Shaking hands with people on meeting them. Hugging those in distress. Touching with my fingers those I love. Playing the piano. And all of those things don’t even address having to find other solutions to opening doors, taking notes, cooking, using a computer or texting. When I think of blessings that I am thankful for, I do not usually think of my hands. If I did not have arms and hands, I would hope that I would have the quiet gracious presence of Dr. Wilke. It was as if he was more fully human.

spice of life

art by lynn

art by lynn

“When the artist is alive in any person… he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature…. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for better understanding.” – Robert Henri

I am currently doing an ‘every day in May’ drawing challenge together with others. They suggest ordinary objects and challenge you to draw on one a day. Doing art seems to always slip to the bottom of the pile, even though I know it is vital to me.  I started the challenge late, so I was catching up by combining the blossoming cherry tree out my window and two spices – one a jar I made up of cinnamon sugar – yum… and the other a bottle of spiced salt from time in Madrid that I have saved from a grocery store expedition years ago.  As I drew and painted, I found that bits of my life and the wider world opened up and came together in the midst of my adventure with watercolor and ink.


good friends

Good friends have been such a blessing in my life. The notion of friendship mines the deep content of mutuality that stretches beyond tit-for-tat and natural affections, and duties. I have been reading a book by Aelred of Rievaulx, a Cistercian monk of 12th century Britain. He puts this so well:

“…[F]riendship among the just is born of a similarity in life, morals, and pursuits, that is, it is a mutual conformity in matters human and divine united with benevolence and charity.”

And later he goes on in more detail: “…[F]riendship bears fruit in this life and the next. It manifests all the virtues by its own charms; it assails vices by its own virtue; it tempers adversity and moderates prosperity.”  And he describes how important it is to have someone “to rejoice with him in adversity…to unburden his mind if any annoyance crosses his path, or with whom to share some unusually sublime or illuminating inspiration.”

He continues: “What happiness, what security, what joy, to have someone to whom you dare to speak on terms of equality as to another self; one to whom you need to have no fear to confess your failings; one to whom you can unblushingly make known what progress you have made in the spiritual life; one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart and before whom you can place all your plans! What therefore is more pleasant than so to unite to oneself the spirit of another and the two to form one, that no boasting is thereafter to be feared, no suspicion to be dreaded, no correction of one by the other to cause pain, no praise on the part of the one to bring a charge of adulation from the other.  ‘A friend,’ says the Wise Man, ‘is the medicine of life.’ For medicine is not more powerful or more efficacious for our wounds in all our temporal needs than the possession of a friend who meets every misfortune joyfully…. who carries his own injuries even more lightly than that of his friend….’[F]riends,’ says Tullius, ‘though absent are present, though poor are rich, though weak are strong, and – what seems stranger still- though dead are alive.’

from Spiritual Friendship, by Aelred of Rievaulx (translated by Mary Eugenia Laker) Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, MI 1974, pp. 61,73-75.

My questioning was my attentive spirit

My questioning was my attentive spirit, and their reply, their beauty.

seashells, drawing by lynn

seashells, drawing by lynn

-St Augustine, Confessions X.6,9

Art that changes

How do we view visual art, and what happens to us when we view certain works in a contemplative way? Sometimes art with religious themes can transport even those who do not agree with the faith tradition of the artist. Pelagia Horgan wrote about the art of Fra Angelico and others.  She refers to a photograph in the article, a photo of the inside of a monastic cell in Florence. Fra Angelico did frescos on the walls of this monastery, and the photo is of the inside of one of the monastic cells, of its walls, its window, and the fresco. Horgan in her article grapples with the apparent incongruity of being touched by religious art when she does not hold a set of cognitive beliefs that are the same as the beliefs of that particular religion. She writes:

Samaritaan by VanGogh

Samaritaan by Vincent Van Gogh

“It struck me that this is what faith is – not a set of propositions you hold to be true, or a set of rules you follow, but an atmosphere you live in, that changes your experience of the world, your sense of what and how things are.”

This is an enriching view, it seems to me. Not that beliefs have no value, but I spend a lot of time in the borderlands of those who assert set beliefs and those who disagree with them.  Certain art can step beyond those boundaries if we let it, changing our experience of the world, our sense of what and how things are…


The House at Rest

How do we create the space for silence in the midst of the busy-ness of our thoughts, our activities, our feelings – a space of deep rest within, where we can draw strength for our actions and our effective presence in the world? So often our days consist of constant reaction to various things without a sense of a center from which we act. How do we hush the busy house of our minds and bodies so that our actions flow out from that inspired core in good and effective ways? This poem by Jessica Powers, from The Selected Poems of Jessica Powers (ICS Publications, Washington DC, 1989) captures this imaginatively.

The House at Rest

On a dark night

Kindled in love with yearnings

Oh, happy chance!—

I went forth unobserved,

My house being now at rest.     

– Juan de la Cruz

How does one hush one’s house,

each proud possessive wall, each sighing rafter,

the rooms made restless with

remembered laughter

or wounding echoes, the permissive doors,

the stairs that vacillate from up to down,

windows that bring in color and event

from countryside or town,

oppressive ceilings and complaining floors?


The house must first of all accept the night.

Let it erase the walls and their display,

impoverish the rooms till they are filled

with humble silences; let clocks be stilled

and all the selfish urgencies of day.


Midnight is not the time to greet a guest.

Caution the doors against both foes and friends,

and try to make the windows understand

their unimportance when the daylight ends.

Persuade the stairs to patience, and deny

the passages their aimless to and fro.

Virtue it is that puts a house at rest.

How well repaid that tenant is, how blest

who, when the call is heard,

is free to take his kindled heart and go.




By now I think I ought to have what it takes to do what I am doing, to deal with the various challenges of life.  But so many things still feel like an adventure (that is the more optimistic term) and I need to find new resources and develop new skills.  I like the poem “Transcendental Etude” by Adrienne Rich, from the book The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974 – 1977  (Norton, 1978). Here is an excerpt:

fly magified lynnunderwood comprNo one ever told us we had to study our lives,

make of our lives a study,

as if learning natural history or music,

that we should begin with the simple exercises first

and slowly go on trying the hard ones,

practicing till strength and accuracy became one with the daring

to leap into transcendence, take the chance of breaking down the wild arpeggio or faulting the full sentence of the fugue.

–And in fact we can’t live like that: we take on everything at once

before we’ve even begun to read or mark time,

we’re forced to begin in the midst of the hard movement,

the one already sounding as we are born….

don’t forget to breathe

When listening to popular music I sometimes take in the words in an abstract way, and lines just stick with me, rather than the ‘meaning’ of the song. A song just works its way into me in unexplainable ways, the poetry in musical form. This song by the Scottish singer Alexi Murdoch has worked its way in.

breathe face cpd cmps lynnunderwood

drawing by lynn

“Keep your head above water….and don’t forget to breathe.”  And the sound of his voice and the instrumentals somehow ground me in good ways too. How often all we can do in situations is just ‘keep our heads above water.’ But don’t forget to breathe! The past few weeks I have had bronchitis, and it brings home to me once again how linked our minds and bodies are. We are not disembodied spirits – we live in our bodies. And that is good.

The gutsiness of music can remind us that we are gutsy. Often our bodies don’t seem cooperative, they limit us in various ways. But while we are alive, these sometimes frail or recalcitrant bodies are essential to living a complete life. And the only place to be is in them, and thankful to be able to breathe.

compassionate love

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

St Kevin and the Blackbird, by Seamus Heaney is part of Chapter 6, “The Flow of Love”, in my Spiritual Connection in Daily Life book.  I wrote:

 I think about love for my daughters and how it feels. I wonder about how it influences their obvious care for others. Where did it come from? What keeps it going?

An Irish legend about St. Kevin forms the basis of a poem by Seamus Heaney. The poem describes St. Kevin kneeling in his monastic cell, praying with arms outstretched, one out the window through the bars of the cell. A bird settles in his outstretched hand and makes a nest there. Because of his compassionate love, Kevin just stays in that position until the eggs hatch. It must have been very hard, and he would have become very tired and wanted to stop. Not even reflecting on the logistics, where did he find the energy to continue holding the nest while the eggs hatched? Heaney in his poem touches on the eternal and rooted wellspring of love in the midst of difficulties, and how care for the bird allows that wellspring to flow through Kevin.

Are you holding any birds that have begun to nest? Do you ever find yourself stuck in the midst of commitment and care, in distress yet still desiring to love? Do you find yourself overextended in some way or another? And then what do you do? How do you sustain this love and care? How does that feel? ….”

This drawing of mine was inspired by the wonderful poem. Here is a link to Heaney reading it with his soft Northern Irish accent.

delusions about perfection

“Our delusions about perfection are obstacles to joy,” writes Wendy Beckett (a woman with prayer at the center of her life, but also an art historian with her own BBC series on art) in her simple book “On Prayer.”  I have read a lot of books on prayer, and there are not that many that I really feel have spoken to me over the years. So often they are just a distraction from getting down to the real business of silence, listening, being truly open, all of me, to the divine light, warmth, and challenges, while standing in who I really am. I loved what she has to say about perfection:

“To be perfect is to be complete….We are all human in different ways. And for us, perfection – to me a rather off-putting noun – can mean only becoming completely what we were meant to be.  Each of us is called to an individual fulfillment, that only God understands. Because we are all different, “perfection,” which I would prefer to call ‘holiness,’ will be different for each of us.  It will take into account our genetic weaknesses. It will allow for the areas in which we will never be objectively admirable, though we may have subjectively striven to the full extent….”

I would add that our particular perfection, or holiness for each of us, will also take into account our particular psychological issues, the gifts and problems put there by our upbringing, the constraints of culture and social situations. We need to be merciful with ourselves as we think about just what is perfect for me, for you.

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn


What is a spiritual experience after all?  Sometimes we can have a sense of what it ought to be and that can get in the way. I find that the poem, Veni Creator, by Czeslaw Milosz, a Lithuanian-Polish poet, from the book, Collected Poems, 1931-1987, speaks to me.

musical communication

How does music express so much?

The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of it, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.” – Marilynne Robinson in The Paris Review Interviews IV

Like in this modern cello music by Zoe Keating:





drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

Wedding by Alice Oswald

From time to time our love is like a sail
and when the sail begins to alternate
from tack to tack, it’s like a swallowtail
and when the swallow flies it’s like a coat;
and if the coat is yours, it has a tear
like a wide mouth and when the mouth begins
to draw the wind, it’s like a trumpeter
and when the trumpet blows, it blows like millions . . .
and this, my love, when millions come and go
beyond the need of us, is like a trick;
and when the trick begins, it’s like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.

This poem, Wedding, by Alice Oswald, is from The Thing in the Gap-stone Style (Oxford University Press)

Everything we miss

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

While looking through the little notebooks that I keep when I travel, reviewing jottings from this past year, I discovered notes on a graphic novel called Everything We Miss by Luke Pearson in the Fruitmarket art gallery in Edinburgh.  The back blurb reads,  “Have you ever wondered what goes on in your life when you’re looking the other way? Perhaps you’re so drawn into what’s going on with you that you fail to notice the events taking place in your periphery—or even right under your nose?”

One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to pay attention to the little things around me, and appreciate them…those treasures that I so often miss. Hidden glory.


Joseph Brodsky, Nobel laureate, wrote a poem for Christmas each year for 18 years. When asked if he was a religious person, Brodsky, a Russian Jew, responded: “I don’t know. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.” He once referred to himself as a “Christian by correspondence.” As the poet Michael Collier wrote, “Brodsky’s religious uncertainty keeps his Nativity efforts clean of tinsel and commercialized sentiments.” These poems can bring us closer to what it means, no matter what our actual beliefs, that God took on human form and really knows how it feels to be like us. Here is one of them.

Star of the Nativity by Joseph Brodsky from Nativity Poems (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2001)


In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than to cold,

to horizontality more than to a mountain,

a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;

it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast,

the steam out of the ox’s nostrils,

Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.

He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray clouds, upon the child in the manger,

from far away—from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star

was looking into the cave. And that was the Father’s stare.


melted joy

art by lynn

art by lynn

Last week I went into the attic to find the decorations for the season. This candle was a gift that has been a household fixture since the children were little. But this time it has brought more joy than ever as we continue to laugh at it, as it sits there on the table.  Is it dancing, or is it totally exhausted? It was definitely melted from the heat of the attic and shaped by its cramped position.  Like we all are at times.

Jolly and “fine” are not ideal goals, and they are subject to melting in the heat.  I look at the world around me, and there is so much suffering – so many are facing heavy challenges. Me too, in my own way.  Joy cannot be plastered on. Joy is challenged by relationships that are not going smoothly, by health problems, by grief and mental distress. But the kind of joy that feeds us draws on a deeper well. That joy helps us to laugh in the face of difficulties and keeps us going.

art by lynn



Every so often, I awaken and find

lynnunderwood.spirconnect-flame2dThe world both vivid and lit, each element

–far as I can tell—lit from within. And yes,

like you, I may have assumed this radiance

to be a trick of morning sun upon the sea,

or the fortunate effect of ambient or

of manufactured light, of dumb or less

dumb luck….

I may have been jogging, or

yammering on before a yawning class,

writing something or other on the blackboard.

I may have appeared more or less awake

right along, but suddenly, with little warning, I become

for the moment more fully awake, and I see

that there—along the path, among the bracken

or the pine, or just there, only now opening

within each forlorn face before me—a glistening,

a quality, a presence of light so profound

I can’t but close my eyes to see.


Excerpt from the poem Somnambulant, by Scott Cairns, from Idiot Psalms: New Poems (Paraclete Press, 2014)

Tools for life

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

If you ask yourself how often you have felt deep inner peace or harmony recently, it can call to mind those places, people and situations that promote that sense in you, and that can help you to seek them more.

When I developed the set of 16 questions in the DSES it was originally for the purpose of research and evaluation. More frequent Daily Spiritual Experiences have been shown to be connected to many good things in life in over 200 research studies. But asking the questions has also become a practical tool for people – helping to notice the presence of the transcendent in daily life. When I ask myself if I have found strength in my religion or spirituality, that reminds me that strength can be found there, and reminds me to look for it and draw on it.

I am presenting at a meeting at Harvard School of Public Health in a couple of weeks on how one might research the role of spirituality in large scale studies of health in diverse populations, seeing if and how it might influence gene expression. (Not all 16 questions speak to everyone, but the average of the set addresses the variety of ways we experience the spiritual, the transcendent, in our lives and provides a number score.  They provide a wide variety of questions that address the depth and diversity of our spiritual experiences.)  At Harvard I have been asked to present on my 16 questions, the DSES, as ones that might help in studying the relationship between spirituality and gene expression and health in diverse populations.  One of the reasons the DSES questions are good for research is that they show statistical correlations with good things like relationships and well-being; and it is also then reasonably easy to enhance this aspect of spirituality, giving us a tool for enriching our lives in significant ways.

the effect of our being

 “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” – the final sentence of Middlemarch, by George Eliot

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

I just returned from a few days consulting and speaking with those who work for and lead a social services organization. The people they serve, many of them young people, are in such difficult situations in life. Those that work in these settings give ‘water from their well’ again and again, and I hoped to provide them with some ways to fill the well and find ways of caring for themselves and communicating about things they value.  I found myself feeling so respectful of the work they do, and so thankful that they are doing this work, and being who they are.


delusion of total self-sufficiency

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

It is delusional to think that we are fully self-sufficient. Last Saturday I led an all-day retreat on “Flourishing in Difficult Circumstances.” One thing we  talked about was how the sense of total self-sufficiency is a delusion, one that is prevalent in our western culture. One of my Power Point slides was this drawing I did long ago….I found it folded up in my files, and I recently hung it up in my study. Of course the importance of personal responsibility cannot be undervalued, but difficult circumstances can vividly remind us of how we all do need help.



art by lynn

I had the privilege last week of presenting/facilitating a day-long workshop for professional caregivers on the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale and the ideas in the Spiritual Connection book in Michigan. It provided a space for them to reflect and share, and nourish their own lives.  These many men and women are working in areas such as hospice, addiction services, ministry, counseling, nursing, prisons, hospital administration, hospital chaplaincy, and long-term care. I came away so appreciative of these individuals, and thinking how glad I am that they do this much needed work. The value of what they do far exceeds the remuneration they receive. I thought of the poem, Higdon Cove, from the book Gourd Song by Coleman Barks, about a man who helps the author get his car out of a ditch with his tractor, and quietly refuses any praise or payment, especially the final few lines…

There is a huge holly tree next to where I glided to a stop,

A solid thigh-trunk white-splotched

And stretching deep under the ditchwater.

Beauty, but not such as this man is,

beyond any tree.”

If any of the many who were there happen to read this blog. Thank you for what you do, but even more, for who you are.

listening to the evening

I went to a concert by some local musicians outdoors with a friend. The music was not the kind I might seek out on my own. But as I found myself looking for things to appreciate, I found them all around. Creative piano improv, enjoying how the double bass sounded and looked, some great trumpet riffs – moments of beautiful gutsy female voice.  And then the summer clouds were this glorious pink on the walk home. The atmosphere in the convenience store filled with so many different kinds of people. The feel of the soft ice cream on my tongue. Hearing the details of my friend’s life and enjoying the congeniality of being together. Divine messages.

happiness and contemplation

“Contemplation does not rest until it has found the object that dazzles it.” – Konrad Weiss

photo by lynn

I am currently reading a book by the philosopher Josef Pieper. In the middle he writes that it is in perceiving reality fully, in contemplation, that happiness is found. I was recently at the shores of Lake Michigan. The evening was glorious. This photo I took only begins to capture what was there, the fullness of reality.

Pieper writes in Happiness and Contemplation:

The ancients conceived the whole energy of human nature as a hunger. Hunger for what? For being, for undiminished actuality, for complete realization—which is not attainable in the subject’s isolated existence, for it can be secured only by taking into the self the universal reality. Hunger is directed toward the real universe, and the universe in its literal sense, toward the whole of being, toward everything that exists…. The word “hunger” should be understood in its most drastic and literal sense. In so far as he exists spiritually, man desires satiation by reality, he wants to “have” reality; he hungers for “the whole,” longs to be filled to repletion….

“Knowing is the highest mode of having because in the world there is no other form so thoroughgoing.  Knowing is not only appropriation which results in “property” and “proprietorship.” It is assimilation in the quite exact sense that the objective world, in so far as it is known, is incorporated into the very being of the knower….One’s existence as a spiritual being involves being and remaining oneself and at the same time admitting and transforming into oneself the reality of the world.”


Assumption by Ron Zito

Assumption by Ron Zito

When taking a week-long life drawing class a couple of weeks ago with Barry Moser, I had the opportunity to see the work of one of my classmates, Ron Zito, during the open slide night. Ron talked us through a series of images of his large oil paintings, some with religious titles. But the images themselves were not literal in any way.  His presentation reminded me of Beckett’s book of contemporary art, The Gaze of Love, that I have sometimes used for morning contemplation. Ron’s images of empty rooms, unpeopled spaces, draped cloth, and concrete barriers along a riverbank were not what we usually think of as religious images. But they were very touching, and that touch took me by surprise. A young woman sitting next to me began to cry on seeing one of them and hearing his description. You can view them on under the Oil Paintings drop down menu, and they merit slow appreciation. Some of my favorites are The Assumption, Within and Without, Still Point and Leap. He brings out spiritual qualities in ordinary things through his way of seeing and his realistic skills with luminous oil paint. His paintings somehow describe the impressions left on spaces by those who have inhabited them, and then we can inhabit them too in some way. The notion of eternal time.

Every day we see things that have the power to draw our attention to the presence of the holy, the divine, God, in our ordinary days. We can miss the transcendent speaking through the ordinary. This direct communication can often happen in the midst of brokenness, or in places that seem empty at first glance. Ron Zito’s paintings remind me in some ways of apophatic theology– no words or images are adequate to describe the spiritual aspects of our lives. We wave our hands and try – and some of us come closer to success than others.

uniqueness and things in common


drawing by lynn

How wonderful that we are not all the same, and that we can still understand each other so often.

It seems normal to assume that the person I am talking to, or trying to understand, is basically like me.  And of course we do have a lot in common.  But this sense of our commonalities gets in the way if I do not step back, again and again, and consider our differences. People have different genetics that even shape things like our physical responses to stress. We each have had different life experiences that influence our responses to events and people and culture. Each person I encounter, from those I am close to, to new people I meet, is different from me, even though we have things in common.

I continue to be amazed at how different we all are. Without attention to our commonalities, medical and social science could not make discoveries, and art could not speak widely. But we all need to fully recognize our individual differences again and again, in order to make progress in understanding—understanding generally about the world, and practical understanding that helps us to relate to others in our ordinary lives. When I developed the 16 questions of the DSES scale of ordinary spiritual experiences I interviewed many many people of various ages, cultures, beliefs, genders, and ethnicities.  And when asked to describe their experiences, each person’s responses were different. The 16 questions group those experiences, and help people see connections with others. That commonality is so important, but recognition that the other person’s experience is valid, and different in some way from my own is essential too.  It is challenging to keep both in mind in our days.


opening endlessly

Tourists have crowded into… the half-dark of the enormous Romanesque church. Vault opening behind vault and no perspective. A few candle flames flickered. An angel whose face I couldn’t see embraced me and his whisper went all through my body: “Don’t be ashamed to be a human being, be proud! Inside you one vault after another opens endlessly. You’ll never be complete, and that’s as it should be.” Tears blinded me as we were herded out into the fiercely sunlit piazza, together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Herr Tanaka and Signora Sabatini; within each of them vault after vault opened endlessly.

-from ‘The Half-Finished Heaven’ by Tomas Transtromer,
Winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature

It must be somewhere

By Juhan Liiv

It must be somewhere, the original harmony,
somewhere in great nature, hidden.
Is it in the furious infinite,
in distant stars’ orbits,
is it in the sun’s scorn,
in a tiny flower, in treegossip,
in heartmusic’s mothersong
or in tears?
It must be somewhere, immortality,
somewhere the original harmony must be found:
how else could it infuse
the human soul,
that music?

Translated from the Estonian by H. L. Hix and Jüri Talvet  Source: Poetry (June 2011)

dorothy sayers wrote:

In the image of [the artists’] experience, we can ‘recognize’ the image of some experience of our own…. When we read the poem or see the play or picture or hear the music, it is as though a light were turned on inside us. We say: ’Ah! I recognize that! That was something which I obscurely felt to be going on in and about me, but I didn’t know what it was, and couldn’t express it. But now…I can possess and take hold of it and make it my own and turn it into a source of knowledge and strength.’

photo by Ron Ables

photo by Ron Abeles

This is really true for me. Listening deeply to certain poems, or viewing visual art, or listening to certain music can provide nourishment in my morning time of silence and contemplative prayer. It continues with me into the day. In a recent public talk, I was amazed at the deep hush that came over the room while I was reading the poems (by Heaney, Levertov, and Collins) . When I wrote the Spiritual Connection book I found myself constantly reaching for poems by good poets to illustrate ideas and experiences of the ‘more than’. And recently when doing a day of retreat for professional caregivers, reflection on the poems opened up conversations, and provoked us in new ways. Visual art, music, drama, fiction and dance all have the capacity to do what Sayers describes.

art and seeing

As I get ready to attend a workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to revive my life-drawing skills, I was reminded of the following excerpt from the book Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation by the German philosopher Josef Pieper:

“How can man preserve and safeguard the foundation of his spiritual dimension and an uncorrupted relationship to reality?  The capacity to perceive the visible world ‘with our own eyes’ is indeed an essential constituent of human nature. We are talking here about man’s essential inner richness…. To see things is the first step toward that primordial and basic mental grasping of reality, which constitutes the essence of man as a spiritual being.”

One of the things Pieper suggests is that we become active in artistic creation. ”Before you can express anything in tangible form, you first need eyes to see. The mere attempt, therefore, to create an artistic form compels the artist to take a fresh look at the visible reality; it requires authentic and personal observation. Long before a creation is completed, the artist has gained for himself another and more intimate achievement: a deeper and more receptive vision, a more intense awareness, a sharper and more discerning understanding, a more patient openness for all things quiet and inconspicuous, an eye for things previously overlooked. In short: the artist will be able to perceive with new eyes the abundant wealth of all visible reality, and thus challenged, additionally acquires the inner capacity to absorb into his mind such an exceedingly rich harvest. The capacity to see increases.”

In one of the classes I teach we end each semester with an art project – they have a chance to express something that reflected the spiritual and/or compassionate love, through a piece of art they would make (music, poetry, fiction, film, photography – one person even chose to create a meal for us). They are graded on effort and conception rather than skill. I wish I could share them all here, as most of them were so inspiring. Although many of the students initially resisted doing the project, most of them really enjoyed it in the end, and especially sharing their creation with others in the class.

We all have the capacity to create art – maybe some of it is pretty primitive- but the process of doing so can greatly enrich our capacity to see, and this can help us clearly perceive the world as it is in all its depth, spiritually infused, and that can enrich our lives.

Is there some kind of creative activity that you can begin to develop, or one that you have already developed but can continue to do more of? When we loosen the constraints of excessive critique, joy is there for us, and in the process we can become more in touch with reality.

resting places

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

We find rest in those we love,

and we provide a resting place in ourselves

for those who love us.

-Bernard of Clairvaux

messy yet glorious love

This sculpture is by Jay DeFeo, a beat artist from the 50’s/60’s/70’s, and I am sharing here a photo of it. The original of this work is approximately 11 by 5 feet, three-dimensionally rendered in oil paint with wood fragments and mica. The piece weights nearly 2,000 pounds and took over 8 years to complete, building layer upon layer, and is in the Whitney Museum in NYCity. museum

When it came time to pick a cover for a book I co-edited for Oxford University Press, I wanted something that would capture the ineffable and spectacular nature of altruistic love – giving of self for the good of the other – in close relationships and with strangers (and even in relationship with ourselves as “the other” that we want to flourish). My editor asked me to find something good. It was in the days before easily accessible art resources on the web, so I went down to the local art institute library and spent a happy afternoon going through art books and thinking about love.  Images were either only about particular kinds of love, or too sentimental, or had other problems. I wanted something that captured the transcendent nature of this other-centered love in many situations.  I finally discovered this piece of art and we ended up using it on the cover. The abstract touched the particular for me in a more universal way, and it has seemed to do so for many others.

This piece for me expresses much about compassionate love, love that facilitates flourishing, as it happens in the midst of our messy lives. Transcendent beauty shining over and through rough chunks and bits and pieces. If you look at this piece, and allow it to speak to you directly, what does it speak to you, what does it stir in you?  Is there any resonance with the way love is expressed in the midst of your life? My students have had to write a page of reflection of their emotional response to this piece of art, and many found it a useful exercise. You may be surprised what emerges if you just let yourself experience the piece and respond emotionally.

Mercy and Music

cello drawing by lynn

cello drawing by lynn

Mercy is a word that unfolds endlessly for me. Mercy touches me in ways that I cannot fully explain. I think some of it is the quality of acceptance in the midst of flaws and problems and mistakes and harms and hurts and difficulties. This mercy is there for all of us.  I recently encountered this piece entitled “Mercy” by Max Richter, composed at the request of the violinist Hilary Hahn.  Music can often speak in ways that words cannot. Tastes in music vary so much, but when students in my classes shared pieces with each other that touched them spiritually, I was impressed by how much communication could happen even if tastes were different. This music brings a restful peace to me, heightening my awareness of the presence of intense and all-embracing mercy.

roots dangling

roots on_lynnunderwood

It is so much easier, when we speak to a group of people, to pretend to be someone we are not, taking the stance of the totally confident and sure expert. It takes courage to be who we are, warts and all. We think somehow if we seem perfect, then what we say will be more compelling, that people will take us more seriously. But it is when we stand with the mud adhering to our hands, and the roots dangling, that we speak authentically. I did this drawing to remind myself of this. In these days with airbrushing of photos and massaging of images on the web and in broadcast, “polished” seems to be the norm.  But who we really are, with roots dangling, mud clinging, imperfections sparkling in the eternal sun – that is real beauty.


jean vanierJean Vanier inspires me. He started the L’Arche communities. They bring people who are marginalized and restless from lack of community and care, together with those who learn to care for them. They especially create small caring communities for those who have developmental disabilities.

I met Jean Vanier over 30 years ago while living in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  A small room of about 20 people had gathered to hear him speak and talk with him. Meeting him made a strong impression on me, and I followed up by reading anything by him I could get my hands on. He was from an important political family in Canada, had served in the Navy in WWII, and then pursued a PhD in philosophy.  It was after this that he came to establish the L’Arche communities. As he spoke of the gift that those who had mental developmental disabilities were to him in his life, it helped me to see that what I had most valued in myself up to that time, my intellectual abilities, were not the most important thing in my life. The communities he started were based on mutual respect – those with developmental disabilities have things to share with us, things they can teach us, things they can give us. His life demonstrated how he really valued all people. We all have different gifts, and discovering those is an opportunity for each of us.

In addition to his writings on disability and community, he has also described human freedom in ways that I have found worth pondering.  In his book, Being Human, he wrote:  “Aristotle talks of our passions as being like a horse which has a life of its own.  We are riders who have to take into account the life of the horse in order to guide it where we want it to go.  We are not called to suppress our passions or compulsions, nor to confront them head on, nor to be governed by them, but to orient them in the direction we want to go….We set out on the road to freedom when we no longer let our compulsions or passions govern us.  We are freed when we begin to put justice, heartfelt relationships, and the service of others and of truth over and above our own needs for love and success or our fears of failure….”

music, time and spirituality

In my Art Science and Spirituality course I share an interview with the South American composer Oswaldo Golijov. He describes the effects of certain kinds of music on spiritual experience in his life, and describes his response to Monteverdi’s Vespers. One of the concepts I address in that class is how both the arts and the sciences inform our understanding of time. How we envision time has a practical effect on us. Do we leave space for a more nuanced and eternal view of time?  This interview is only seven minutes long and is well worth listening to, and it contains excerpts of the music.

He also describes inhabiting music like a cathedral, and how the way music and words are combined can enable the words to penetrate more deeply.

Moving towards resting places


drawing by lynn

“A body tends by its weight towards the place proper to it – weight does not necessarily tend towards the lowest place but towards its proper place. Fire tends upwards, stone downwards. By their weight they are moved and seek their proper place…. Things out of their place are in motion: they come to their place and are at rest. My love is my weight: wherever I go, my love is what brings me there.”

– St Augustine



out my back window

out my back window

Let us come alive to the splendor that is all around us, and see the beauty in ordinary things.

-Thomas Merton

Silence and light


photo by lynn

Simone Weil, a French philosopher and activist from the mid-twentieth century commented that one major, if not the major failure, is “our inability to feed on the light.”  I have just returned from my yearly weeklong silent retreat, something that has been a mainstay of my life for 15 years. I really needed it. I am much better able to feed on the light now, than before I left. And so many subtle and not so subtle changes have happened inside me. I know that for me the time in solitude and silence in the context of a monastic setting, routine, spiritual readings, nature and rich liturgy, not only revives and renews me, it re-sets my compass. Swaths of time in silent prayer/contemplation and hikes in the hills, are important parts of my retreat too. The effect continues to amaze me. Aaaah.

The Smile of the Soul

patience_ lynn underwood 2010In the Yes theme chapter (8) in the Spiritual Connection book, one of the things I reflect on is how we need to receptively allow life to unfold. In many ways, I think of myself as a patient person, but when I carefully look at my attitudes, I see impatience with myself in abundance. I did this piece of calligraphy a while back, a saying by Philippe Obrecht – “Patience is the soul’s smile…”  We can say yes to life as it is, ourselves as we are, as we wait in preparation for what is to come in its own time.  I am getting a strong message of patience right now – loud and clear.  I hope I can listen.

People on a parallel way

young man_lynn_underwood_cropcondensed

art by lynn

“There are people on a parallel way. We do not see them often, or even think of them often, but it is precious to us that they are sharing the world. Something about how they have accepted their lives, or how the sunlight happens to them, helps us to hold the strange, enigmatic days in line for our own living.”—William Stafford

One of the things I have found over the years in interviewing people about their ordinary experience of spirituality in daily life, is how different and varied each person’s experience is, even though there are definitely common threads.  Yet just being aware that others are feeling and experiencing the same light in different ways than I can, somehow illuminates my days.

Eternal moments


art by lynn

This Much I Do Remember
by Billy Collins
It was after dinner.
You were talking to me across the table
about something or other,
a greyhound you had seen that day
or a song you liked,
and I was looking past you
over your bare shoulder
at the three oranges lying
on the kitchen counter
next to the small electric bean grinder,
which was also orange,
and the orange and white cruets for vinegar and oil.
All of which converged
into a random still life,
so fastened together by the hasp of color,
and so fixed behind the animated
foreground of your
talking and smiling,
gesturing and pouring wine,
and the camber of you shoulders
that I could feel it being painted within me,
brushed on the wall of my skull,
while the tone of your voice
lifted and fell in its flight,
and the three oranges
remained fixed on the counter
the way that stars are said
to be fixed in the universe.
Then all of the moments of the past
began to line up behind that moment
and all of the moments to come
assembled in front of it in a long row,
giving me reason to believe
that this was a moment I had rescued
from millions that rush out of sight
into a darkness behind the eyes.
Even after I have forgotten what year it is,
my middle name,
and the meaning of money,
I will still carry in my pocket
the small coin of that moment,
minted in the kingdom
that we pace through every day.

From Billy Collins, Picnic, Lightning. University of Pittsburg Press, 1998. (This book is full of gems like this.)

Holidays, holy-days, wholeness


art by lynn

The word ‘holidays’ comes from holy-days.  That’s hard to believe, as so much of the seasonal pressure and frippery seems the opposite of holy. Holy and whole in English are derived from the same root word.

The bustle of the holidays can be fragmenting, pulling us apart rather then enabling us to exist in an integrated whole.  What do you do during daily tasks and demands to “pull yourself together”?

I find that music helps.  Unfortunately the repetitive and commercial use of music at this time of year has weakened its ability to draw us towards unseen yet vital aspects of life.  But we can reclaim the music, find pieces that inspire us to see the holy, and feel whole in the holidays.

For many, the religious aspects of the holidays are not relevant, and the language of many of the songs does not speak to everyone in a literal sense, and can provoke reactions of alienation. But can you nevertheless find, sniff out, pointers to a wider mystery in some of the music? Many of the writers and performers are coming from a deep place within, beyond theological and religious and cultural constructs.  Notes of peace, joy, love, generosity, in the midst of ordinary life. Can you allow the music to wash over you and stir where it will?

I play music of the season on the piano from books that are dissolving with wear. My book of international carols especially connects me to the past and other parts of the world at this time of year. Participating in making music and singing stirs my heart.

Does some music of this season help you to find transcendent wonder buried in your days? Reminding you of wholeness, reminding you of the holy, here, now.



art by lynn

I am easily able to see problems and flaws.  This can be a strength, and it has saved me from falling into some big holes.  But for some of us, problems seem to speak louder than beauty. Our attention is so often drawn to the one thing that is out of whack. It can take extra effort to notice the beauty shining in the midst of our days.  After an ice storm, this little branch was lying on the ground and I brought it home with me. This is a much needed reminder to me.

There are so many things during the holiday season that can seem not quite perfect:  family, travel, finances, not enough time for this or that.  I know that I need to give extra attention to the light on the snow, how cosy my warm sweater feels, the best of the music, good memories, the smell of good food, the people who are here now with me.  Question 14 in the Spiritual Connection book asks how often you experience joy that lifts you out of your daily concerns.  There is enough of our day dedicated to the flaws and problems – doesn’t joy deserve some of our time?

Stained Glass

art by lynn

are living stained glass windows
Beautiful in ourselves.
for color-bathing others.

Marlene Halpin OP

Healing Balm

In the midst of famine in Sudan in the 1980’s, everything was dry – grasses and foliage. To keep from focusing on hunger and distress, the women began to weave baskets from the dry grasses, beautiful baskets.  This weekend I heard, live, a beautiful piece of music. The Famine Song, by Vida, arranged by Mathew Culloton, that describes this. I find listening to this song deeply soothing somehow. It touches within me places of injury and distress and provides a healing balm.

Here is a link to a group singing this


Some of the beginning words of the song are :

Ease my spirit
Ease my soul
Please free my hands from this barren soil

Ease my mother
Ease my child
Earth and sky be reconciled


And at the end :

Weave my mother

Weave my child
Weave your baskets of rushes wild
Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain, rain

What are blessings anyway?

art by lynn

art by lynn

One of the questions in my Spiritual Connections book asks how often you find yourself being thankful for your blessings. When something horrible that I might have expected doesn’t happen, I find myself especially thankful. For example, when I have a close shave in traffic, and I come out unscathed. Or I find myself thankful when something that seems particularly nice happens to me. But I see people who are in such difficult circumstances still being thankful – circumstances of poverty or disease that I don’t think I could bear.  I am amazed at their continual appreciation of small things in life, and it is important for me to have that reminder.

Just think of the close shaves we all have each day that we are unaware of – the escapes from trouble that we don’t even see.  And even buried within the tough times are blessings we may never completely comprehend. What looks like disaster can somehow pave the way for future good for ourselves or others.

And we are alive: we taste food, we feel the softness as we touch a cat’s fur, we hear music that touches us.  All the lovely little things of each day.  Being alive, even when life is tough, has lovely moments – more of them than we can keep track of. They often go by unnoticed, like unwrapped presents. I am going to unwrap a few more today.

Compassionate Love: I, thou, and we

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

“The encounter between two people which leads to mutual recognition and the serious exchanges of friendship or love abolishes between them the third person which is the normal form of regard for another, and each becomes for the other a second person, a thou, and thenceforth they are together in the first person, a we. Each is present to the other and promises to be with the other always.  The intimate being of each is present to the other, and fidelity is the active cultivation and enjoyment of that presence always. Absence and even death does not destroy this presence, but is rather the proof of its veritability. For when one dies whose presence I have enjoyed in friendship or in love, either he becomes less than an object or else his presence (not a mere image or memory) remains as active within me as before. It depends on my willingness to continue to be truly present to him.”

Blackham, H. J. (1983). Six Existentialist Thinkers (Reprint.). Routledge. Chapter on Gabriel Marcel. P 76. Artwork Lynn Underwood

Conflict Resolution and Spiritual Connection Podcast

georgemasonlynnunderwoodThis summer I was invited to give a presentation on the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.  One of the uses of the 16 Daily Spiritual Experience Questions is in opening conversations to bridge differences in beliefs, and help in community building.  After the presentation and the lively discussion, Jacqueline Greiff, the Executive Director of their Center for Peacemaking Practice, invited me to be interviewed. You can listen to a podcast of this by scrolling to the bottom of the page at

It excites me to see how useful the 16 DSES questions are for those from so many religions, as well as those who are not comfortable with religion.  The specific experiences that people have can bridge differences in belief and culture, often creating connections at a deep level between people. The resulting conversations do not reduce spiritual experience to mush, but create space for the marvelous variety and depth of experiences that sustain and enrich so many different people’s lives.

Leaves on the Ground at our Feet

leavesanna24lynnunderwoodcompressed  I noticed these leaves while out walking today, and picked up these two from the grey pavement to take home. I drew and painted them to help the beauty stick with me longer. As they sit here on the table together, I also find myself thinking about my relationships with those I am close to.

opening windows with art


“Art in the spirit opens a window onto these transcendental realities of which the ancients called the Passio Entis, the “accidents of Being.” They are the Holiness of all that is. And from these transcendental involvements flow all the other humanizing values of our existence: love, compassion, simplicity, fidelity, forgiveness, freedom, justice, peace. For you see it is the function of art to open the human heart.”

Some food for my morning contemplative time these past weeks has been a beautiful book, Creation out of Clay: The Ceramic Art and Writings of Brother Thomas

(Ed. Rosemary Williams, Pucker Art Publications, Boston 1999, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids)

It is a large book full of luscious pictures of Brother Thomas’ pottery that make me want to touch them, and full of his essays, which include wisdom that feeds me.


A high spot of summer for me is going to farmers’ markets. When I get there I become quite focused: What I will buy for what meal plan? But despite this focus I usually find that I get lost in the visual beauty of the fruits and vegetables and in taking in the smells. I bought these beets that looked rather ugly, yet when I got home, it was the beets I felt drawn to draw. At first they just looked brown and muddy, but as I painted/drew them, I detected the subtleties. I thought about the Yes! Chapter in the book, about how things that do not look great on the outside in our lives, can reveal beauty nevertheless. And I haven’t even cooked them yet.

heaney and the beauty of creation

The first of the 16 questions my Spiritual Connection in Daily Life book explores is, “Have you been spiritually touched by the beauty of creation?”

A favorite poet of mine, Seamus Heaney, died last week, and it seemed a good time to offer this  excerpt from my book, which includes part of one of his poems.

“Experiences of wonder are there for the taking. They are around us every day. Awe-inspiring colors and sounds and touch-sensations. Signs of and pointers to the transcendent. When we have these experiences, we touch the transcendent as obviously as we touch the chairs we sit on. It may seem even more real. These feelings can provide encouragement to us. When I look out over a lake, watch a sunset from a balcony, see the bud of a flower in a vase in my apartment, watch the flame of a candle, there can be for me a vivid sense of the “more than.”

“What do you see as the beauty of creation? Can you see it in tears? In faces? In the rough and the smooth?

“Poetry, through expert use of language, can capture this well, and call our attention to these experiences.”

Seamus_Heaney Seamus Heaney’s poem “Postscript,” is a great example of this, and I quote it in the book; you can read it now here on line.

After Heaney’s quotation, I continue in my book,

“If we live in the countryside or near water or spectacular scenery, this can seem easier. But even in an urban environment, evidence of this is there for the taking. Parks, the sky, plants in our apartment, the sound of water, the beauty of people’s faces. And on the other hand, we can miss the chance even in the midst of the obvious. While living in a village on a mountainside in Switzerland, the Alps were usually in view, but I could be so consumed by my own preoccupations that I just did not notice this awe-inspiring beauty. These experiences are not defined by the setting, although it may be easier to feel in some places. You may want to go somewhere that helps you to see this beauty. Do you find space in your life for “wow”? There is something about the very substance of life itself that can inspire us, keep our hearts from drying up. When are you aware of it?”

the dses and inter-religious and religious-secular dialogue

Presentation at the George Mason School for Conflict Resolution and Analysis

April 2, 2013

The Daily Spiritual Experience Scale: Uses for Inter-religious and Religious-secular Dialogue


The kinds of things that help to give life meaning, purpose, and satisfaction are often grounded in concepts we term religious or spiritual, a sense of the “more than” in daily life. This can be the case for those who find roots in religion as well as those not comfortable with religious language. Spiritual and religious attitudes and values help to shape: how people view the world, what they consider important, what they do, how they act, how they feel, identity and affinity, and also why they may mistrust or hate other people.

The Daily Spiritual Experience Scale (DSES) is a set of 16 multiple-choice questions, psychometrically validated, which can be also be used in an open-ended way. It measures ordinary experiences of relationship with, and awareness of, the divine or transcendent. It measures experiences rather than beliefs, and the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. It has been used in over 150 published studies, linking it to many good outcomes for many kinds of people. Tens of thousands of people have taken the test, and it has been translated into over 30 languages. It has proven useful for most religions and in secular settings for those not comfortable with religion. The DSES is proving to be helpful for assessment, personal exploration, and communication in interpersonal, therapeutic, organizational settings.

This presentation and the subsequent extended discussion with faculty, students, and fellows, explored ways that the questions might be useful for communication between people of different beliefs, allowing them to share about things that are important in their daily lives. Exploring answers to the questions can allow people to connect with others about things that have value and meaning to them without coming up against the walls that discussion of beliefs can lead to. Common ground can be found in the depths of the discussion, even when beliefs differ. This can be helpful in the resolution of conflict, and building bridges in peacemaking process. DSES scores have also been linked to less burnout in practitioners of various kinds.

invited speaker united methodist association national conference

Presented “Spiritual Connection: A Resource for Professional Caregiving” as an invited plenary speaker at the 73rd National Conference of the United Methodist Association in Orlando, FL on March 5, 2013.

“philosophy talks” interview

I discussed  “Unconditional Love,” on “Philosophy Talks” Radio Program, Stanford University, December 9, 2012. Available as a podcast on itunes or at

metaphor and the self

Metaphor and the Self: A Role for the Arts in Understanding Suffering and Treating the Person in Distress, Lynn Underwood, International Neuroethics Conference, Brain Matters 3: Values at the Crossroads of Neurology, Psychiatry, and Psychology, October 24-25, 2012


Research shows that the metaphors we use affect our behaviors and attitudes in significant ways. (Holding a cup of hot coffee rather than a cold drink can cause us to have a more friendly attitude towards those we meet; Boroditsky’s work showing how reading about a description of crime as a virus rather than a beast can influence our decisions on the best ways to control the same criminal behaviors.) These effects usually happen implicitly – we are not aware of them. The machine metaphor recurs in our descriptions of the brain and the overall functioning of the body and has become an automatic default. It can be useful in simplifying complex systems, and medical training encourages this. Even efforts to promote humanism in medicine slide in this direction, as communication, empathy and ethical decisions are formulated in mechanistic terms.

This kind of thinking can get in the way when we treat conditions for which no “physical” cause can be found. Self-reports made by the person and their experiences of suffering are essential to the identification of the roots of the problems and opportunities for treatment. However if one buys into the machine metaphor too much, the experience of the person is given less weight in the overall assessment, while objective features such as brain scans, blood chemistry and physiologically evident symptoms are given the final say. Measurements based solely on a machine model lead to interventions that presuppose a kind of person that is incongruous with the way we live our lives, and what is most important to us.

Visual art, film and literature can give insight into the nature of the human person that offers alternative metaphors for the human person, and opens opportunities for creative approaches to treatment and evaluation of outcomes. This presentation would elaborate on those, and give specific examples of how they can help yield more effective treatments and decisionmaking.

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ethical implications of dses research

Ethical Implications of the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale, Bioethics Grand Rounds, Cleveland Clinic, September 11, 2012.


Recent research has asserted the value of incorporating the spiritual orientation, concerns and needs of the patient into the healthcare relationship, and accreditation requires attention to this aspect of the patient. Doing so raises a number of ethical issues, however. Use of the 16 questions from the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale (DSES) can help the health professional avoid some of these ethical problems by 1) focusing on experiences rather than beliefs, 2) using questions validated cross-culturally, 3) opening avenues for communication and understanding, and 4) emphasizing the spiritual aspect of life as a part of the whole person, rather than reducing it to a tool for improving physical health. The DSES questions also assist the professional in better delivering competent care that addresses this complex component of the human person.

The DSES is a 16-item, psychometrically validated scale, used in over 100 published studies and translated into over 20 languages. It measures reported frequency of such ordinary spiritual experiences as awe, compassionate love, mercy, divine closeness, sense of spiritual support, gratitude, and deep inner peace in daily life ( The research involved in its development used ethical principles such as respect for diversity to construct a scale that would reach many people substantively. It was based on extensive international qualitative research in multiple cultures, ages and socioeconomic status. It functions well for people from the various major religious traditions as well as for those who call themselves spiritual but not religious, and atheists. Higher scores have been linked with happiness, life satisfaction, less addictive behaviors, less depression and anxiety, better health behaviors, self-efficacy, less burnout, and improved relationships.

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neuroethics course syllabus

INTD 381: Introduction Neuroethics
Introduction to Neuroethics
Spring 2008
Professor Lynn Underwood
INTD 381
Time: 9 30-12 30 Mon Tues Thurs Friday
Class Summary:

Ethical issues that relate to our brains and nervous systems are becoming of increasing importance not just for health professionals but for us all. In this class we will engage with ethical issues arising from new discoveries and technologies in Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology. We will consider implications for individual action and general policies. We will be exposed to the technologies, philosophical assumptions, and conclusions of the research. Topics introduced will include: moral decision-making and the brain; the interpretation of insights provided by neural imaging (e.g. brain scans); legal responsibility and mental illness; pain and suffering; the effects of psychologically potent drugs and technologies and their appropriate use; the role of and appropriate use of enhancement of mental functioning via drugs and other technologies; and ethics of and mechanisms of brain manipulation by marketing, the media, and other non-medical sources. We will also reflect on how the scientific findings and potential interventions, when combined with other sources of knowledge, have implications for what it means to be human. The text for the course will be “Neuroethics: Defining the Issues in Theory, Practice, and Policy” edited by J. Illes. Films and websites will also be used for resources – one film introducing some basics of brain science through narratives of those suffering from brain diseases ( such as depression, Alzheimers, ADHD and schizophrenia), and a fictional film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. A class trip or visit from a professional in the field, such as a neurosurgeon or clinical bioethicist is planned. Grades will be based on class participation, short essays and class presentations, a final project (either a researched essay or a creative narrative project), and final essay exam.

Goals of Course:

To engage with the ethical issues that are arising in Neuroscience and Cognitive psychology
To develop opinions about where you stand on various complex issues in this field
To be able to articulate stands regarding policy options
To come to a clearer understanding of what exactly it means to be human by combining the findings of Neuroscience with those in other areas of knowledge
Neuroethics: Defining the Issues in Theory, Practice, and Policy,J Illes (editor), Oxford University Press, NY, 2006.

Additional readings: Two overview articles from Trends in Cognitive Science will be sent via email as attachments. There may be additional readings on Sakai, in the library, on the web, or sent to you via email. One key article will be: Farah, Martha J., Neuroethics: the practical and the philosophical, Trends in Cognitive Science 9:1, 2005. P 34-40

Also we will read and watch various stories in books and articles of those with Neuro and Cognitive impairments.
Class schedule

Monday Tuesday Thursday Friday

April 17 Film

April 18 Ethics overview
April 21 Brain disease overview

April 22 Film discussion

April 23 text/readings 2

April 24 discussion

April 25 Articles/Chapters as assigned
April 28 Articles/Chapters as assigned

April 29 Alzheimer’s Chapter 7

April 30 text/readings

May 1 Neurosurgery – Class visit Clinical Ethicist

May 2 Final readings/discussion
May 5Projects

May 6 last dayProjects

May 7 Exam

Weighting of assignments:
40% Class attendance, participation in discussion, quizzes, essays, and brief presentations
30% Final Project
30% Final Essay Exam

Final Project: This will be discussed more fully in class. However, you will take a key issue from class or readings. You will draw from the text and articles, do outside research, take a stand on how it needs to be addressed, and describe impact and relevance for action. You may also draw on philosophy, religious studies, literature, visual art, and film to more clearly make your points. This can be a didactic or a creative work. Use APA format for project if in didactic format. You will present on your project in class and lead discussion on the topic.



syllabus – understanding and interpreting human studies

Understanding and Interpreting Human Studies
INTD 381

Gehlbach, Stephen H. Interpreting the Medical Literature, McGraw-Hill, Amherst, Mass 2006.

There will be a Sakai site on Web4Students associated with this course, and you must be able to access it. Articles will be put up on the site for you to read online or download. It will be enable interaction for project selection.

Class times and schedule:
Class meets from 9:30 to 12:30

Course Summary: Studying people using scientific tools can actually help us and those around us to change behavior wisely and adjust our attitudes to better agree with the way the world operates. This course will introduce some of the key principles in the design of human studies primarily through reading and analyzing studies others have done. It is a challenge to study people. People are unfortunately – or fortunately – “messy”! By reading and interpreting studies of humans, we can make better decisions for ourselves and those we care about. To do that well, we need to know the limitations of the conclusions we can reach given the data presented. This course also addresses the ethical reasons to do research, and ethical concerns both in doing research and interpreting it. There will also be an opportunity to practice designing human research.

This is an introductory course – we will work towards the following goals:
1) Be able to read a scientific paper on a human study, especially a medical study, and
a. identify key issues in study design
b. identify some fatal flaws
c. identify some of what you can and cannot conclude from the study
2) Through the reading of papers on human studies be able to identify some of the key factors involved in clinical and human research so that you can:
a. Begin to apply the results – personally and professionally
b. Design human research yourself or with others.
3) Identify some of the key ethical issues in doing human studies and presented when reading about the research of others
4) Apply the results of some specific research studies studied in class to your own life in practical ways.

Class attendance and participation is crucial
Missing even a single class is a real problem in this course. You are getting 3 hours credit for this course, so missing one class is like missing a week of class in the normal semester. Assignment materials will be handed out, and presentations and discussions cannot be made up easily. If you do miss a class it is your responsibility to obtain notes from someone in the class. The text is not a substitute for class participation.

a) Assigned reading. Keep notes on assigned reading. Keeping up with assigned reading is very important and it may also be evaluated by pop quiz or individualized class discussion assessment.
b) Specific project assignments. Make sure these are completed in accordance with the instructions, and submitted on time. Late assignments will not get full credit, and are a real problem as class discussion of assignment material happens the day it is due.
c) You are expected to spend substantive time outside class reading assigned materials and working on projects. The more you put into this course, the more you will get out of it.

Project Assignments:
The following are preliminary descriptions of these assignments. These will be presented in more detail, and possibly refined, as the class develops.

1) Project one
a. Summary – What was the central study question? Explain for the non-expert
b. Terms for Project one: Use these terms to examine the study
* Confounding
* Types of study: More important to describe the architecture of it than to name: Cross sectional, Intervention – (Experimental),Retrospective (Case control – or comparative sample),Variations, Prospective (followup or longitudinal)
* Definitions
* Measurement
* Classifications
* Outcomes
* Selection issues – Bias? Sample? Random?
c. What are the implications for action of this study? What limits keep it from being helpful for action? Discuss strengths and limitations.

2) Second project: Design a study
Think of a question you would like to answer about humans – be specific and clear
Design a study to answer that question.
What kind of study will work best: intervention, cross-sectional, retrospective, prospective, combo
What measures will you use… for each of the variables
How reliable are your measures?
Is there any way to make them more reliable?
How do they connect to the construct of interest- so they enable your study to be useful
How will you “control” the study so that you investigate your question, and not something else?
How will you select your sample?
Think about the various issues we have discussed to date in study design and incorporate them into your study plan.
This assignment will be critiqued by your peers in class.
You will also hand in a hard copy.

3) Final project:
I would suggest that you pick this published study early on in the class, and be collecting your info all along on it.
Take a question that you are interested in answering about human beings that might have practical application to your life or those you care about. Pick something specific.
Pick one original study on the topic in a peer-reviewed medical or social science journal.
Describe the study: Type, selection, measurements, likelihood of having false positive or false negative results…see Gehlbach readings and class notes for prompts for various additional points.
Use what you learned from feedback from project one to improve this project write-up. This project should be in more depth, as you will now know more.
Given the results, what would you advise regarding action and why?
Look at various problems in the study that limits what you can conclude?
Class presentation and hard copy to hand in.
Weighting of assignments:
There will be no final exam in this course
30% Project 1
30% Project 2
40% Project 3


using the dses to improve patient care

Using the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale to Improve Patient Care. Psychiatry Conference: Sympozion National al ARSP cu Participare Internationala. Lynn Underwood. Sponsored invitation to speak. Targu Mures, Romania. 31 May – 3 June, 2012.


Spiritual and religious issues and values can influence how people cope with disease, make decisions, and behave in ways that affect their health. Spiritual and religious attitudes help to shape how people view the world and what they consider important. They can provide resources for patients to draw on. These may be particularly salient for them in the midst of mental illness, chronic disease, addiction, times of medical crisis, and at end-of-life.  It is often challenging to communicate with patients about religious and spiritual values and issues without running headlong into beliefs that may polarize conversation and empathic understanding, and limit the caregiver’s capacity to attend to patient needs and desires.

The Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale (DSES) is a 16-item psychometrically validated scale that measures the frequency of ordinary experiences such as awe, compassionate love, mercy, divine closeness, sense of spiritual support, gratitude, and deep inner peace in daily life ( ).  The DSES was constructed based on extensive qualitative research in multiple cultures, religions and secular settings.  It has been used in over 100 published studies, answered by many thousands of people, put on longitudinal health studies, and translated into over 20 languages.  It is linked to outcomes such as less addictive behaviors, better mood, improved relationships, decreased hospital stays, positive health behaviors, and diminished burnout.  It has been used extensively in medicine, psychiatry, psychology and social work research.   It functions well for people from various major religious backgrounds as well as for those who call themselves spiritual but not religious.  It does not reduce the spiritual to vague positive features, rather it allows for the kinds of experiences that encompass religious and spiritual depth. It is not only a potential mediating variable but also a measure of a significant component of quality of life for many.

This presentation will discuss ways in which the scale can be used in health-care settings to enhance the caregivers’ capacity to communicate with the patient and to help those who are ill to mobilize their own spiritual and religious resources to better cope with illness.  Another use of the scale is as a self-exploration tool for caregivers themselves using a structured method to enhance self-understanding and their ability to communicate with others different from themselves.  Scores have predicted less burnout in a large hospital system in Hong Kong, as well as in a study of those in the US working in palliative care.

In addition to describing its use in research, and how spiritual experience interacts with biology, this presentation will describe how this psychometrically validated set of 16 questions can be used as a clinical tool to improve patient care.

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enhancing spiritual connection through poetry in a secular context

Enhancing Spiritual Connection through Poetry in a Secular Context. Lynn Underwood. University College London. Institute for Advanced Study, Senate House, June 29, 2012.


Poetry can open the mind to better grasp the complexity of the divine, the holy, and help make connections in down-to-earth ways, integrated into daily life.  The language of poetry and the use of metaphor and apparent paradox can expand our conceptual understanding.  The concreteness of poetry can also help ground this in the substance of our days.  This paper will give examples of specific poetry from Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, Rainer Maria Rilke, R.S. Thomas, Jessica Powers and others, and point to specifically religious poetry from a variety of faith traditions, describing how they have been useful in the classroom for enriching capacity for sense of communication with the divine for those from specific faith traditions and those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  Poetry provides words that can open doorways without reducing the spiritual to a meaningless common denominator – leading instead to the depths and richness of religious traditions.

Poetry can help those of faith and those not comfortable in a religious tradition to enhance sense of connection with God and become increasingly aware of that connection in daily life. It can bridge traditions and beliefs and has been used effectively by the author of this paper in a variety of secular college classroom settings and in small group work.  Approaching poetry in a contemplative rather than analytic way facilitates this engagement, and journaling encourages direct encounter with the poems themselves in written conversation.  Structured group discussion of personal responses to the poems can also provide mutual illumination of contexts and invitation.

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enhancing communication and understanding in health care

Enhancing Communication and Understanding in Health Care, October 20, 2012, American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, Lynn Underwood, Washington D.C.
Spiritual and religious issues and values often influence how people cope with disease, make decisions, and behave in ways that affect their health. These may be particularly salient for them in chronic disease, mental health, addiction, times of medical crisis, and at end-of-life. It is often challenging to communicate with patients about religious and spiritual values and issues of importance without running headlong into beliefs that may polarize conversation and empathic understanding, and limit the caregiver’s capacity to attend to patient needs and desires.


The Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale (DSES) is a 16-item psychometrically validated scale that measures the frequency of ordinary experiences such as awe, compassionate love, mercy, divine closeness, sense of spiritual support, gratitude, and deep inner peace in daily life ( The DSES was constructed based on extensive qualitative research in multiple cultures. It has been used in over 100 published studies, included in the General Social Survey and longitudinal health studies, and translated into over 20 languages. It is linked to outcomes such as less addictive behaviors, better mood, decreased hospital stays, positive health behaviors, and diminished burnout. It has been used extensively in medicine, psychiatry, psychology and social work research. It functions well for people from various major religious backgrounds as well as for those who call themselves spiritual but not religious, and atheists. It does not reduce the spiritual to vague positive features, rather it allows for the kinds of experiences that encompass religious and spiritual depth. It is not only a potential mediating variable but also a measure of a significant component of quality of life for many.
This presentation will discuss ways in which the scale can be used in secular health-care settings to enhance the caregiver’s capacity to communicate with the patient and to help those who are ill to mobilize their own spiritual and religious resources to better cope with illness. Another use of the scale is as a self-exploration tool for caregivers themselves using a structured method to enhance self-understanding and their ability to communicate with others different from themselves. Scores have predicted less burnout in a large hospital system in Hong Kong, as well as in a study of those working in palliative care. This presentation will describe how this psychometrically validated set of 16 questions can be used.

Return to “Recent and Current Presentations”

compassionate love publications by lynn underwood

The Science of Compassionate Love: Research, Theory, and Applications. Fehr. B. Sprecher, S, Underwood, LG, eds. Oxford England, Malden Mass: Wiley-Blackwell. 2009.

Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue Post, SG, Underwood, LG, Schloss, JP, Hurlbut, WB, eds., Oxford University Press, 2002.


“Interviews with Trappist Monks as a Contribution to Research Methodology in the Investigation of Compassionate Love.” Underwood LG Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 35:3 (September, 2005), 285-302.

“Altruistic Love – Compassionate Love”. Underwood, L. In Harry T. Reis & Susan Sprecher (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (2009)

“Chapter 1: Compassionate love: A framework for research” Underwood, Lynn G. in Fehr, Sprecher and Underwood The Science of Compassionate Love: Theory Research and Applications, Blackwell. Wiley- Blackwell. Malden Massachusetts, Oxford, England 2009.

“Giving of Self for the Good of the Other: Science Research on Compassionate Love and Spirituality” Underwood, Lynn G. in The Love that Does Justice, Edwards, Michael and Post Stephen (eds), Cleveland, Ohio 2008, p 133-138.

“Compassionate Love,” in Post, Stephen G. ed. 2004. Encyclopedia of Bioethics, 3rd edition. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 483-488.

“The Human Experience of Compassionate Love: Conceptual Mapping and Data from Selected Studies”, in Post, SG, Underwood, LG, Schloss, JP, Hurlbut, WB, eds. Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue, 2002. New York City: Oxford University Press. 72-88.

“Concluding Summary and Future Research Needs on Altruism and Altruistic Love,” with Post, SG in ibid. 3-12, 379-386.

neuroethics, the arts, and the nature of the human person

Neuroethics, the Arts and the Nature of the Human Person. Lynn Underwood. Medical Humanities Conference, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, September 29-30 2011.


The arts and humanities are essential to effectively grapple with the questions that arise from advances in neuroscientific technologies and treatments. They are essential for medical practitioners as they make treatment and policy decisions. But even those not professionally involved with health care need the arts and humanities as we make decisions about what kinds of pharmaceutical and neurosurgical interventions are appropriate for ourselves and those we care for, policy decisions regarding issues such as human responsibility within health care and criminal justice, and decisions about how to regulate and respond to marketing of neurotechnologies of various kinds.

Also, neuroscientists and interpreters of neuroscience make claims about how ethics operates and the nature of the human person. The humanities can provide us with tools for doing the kinds of reflection necessary to effectively accept or discard these claims. The arts can help to reveal qualities and issues in novel and useful ways.

This presentation will lay out the scope of the problems, and highlight some particularly thorny issues.  Also, it will outline some of the ways to engage students, those in the health sciences and others, with these topics using the humanities and arts to better equip them for the particular challenges neuroscientific knowledge and technologies have brought to the fore. In this context the presenter will draw on four years of classroom experience teaching both Neuroethics and general medical humanities using these methods.

Examination of how we envision the nature of the human person is essential to adequately address many of the issues that increasing knowledge and technology in neuroscience has raised. Film, memoir and poetry, as well as insights from philosophy and religious studies, can usefully inform our decision-making and attitudes.  The visual arts, particularly portraiture and self-portraiture can give us special insight into the nature of the human person. The emergence of popular and scientific appreciation for the complexities of decision-making enable us to see why approaching a complex topic through the arts can give insight that can complement and enhance other kinds of analysis. The arts can enable us to enter into situations in ways beyond merely speculating on how we think we would feel in a given situation. Empathic engagement as well as enhanced sensibilities can result from the inclusion of the arts and humanities in these discussions.

The presentation will outline some of the issues and give specific examples of humanities and art resources that have been effectively used in teaching situations.

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the human person: possibilities for flourishing in dire circumstances

The Human Person: Possibilities for Flourishing in Dire Circumstances. Lynn Underwood. Hellenic Research Foundation, European Research Network. Athens, Greece, September 21, 2007.


Even in the midst of suffering there can be opportunities for the human person to flourish. Of course we do not seek suffering and continually seek to relieve the suffering of self and others. One positive aspect of dire circumstances is that various false illusions and assumptions do not hold up once exposed to situations such as disability, chronic disease, extreme suffering or experiences at end of life. These include various assumptions about apparent self-sufficiency, functionalism (seeing ourselves as “human doings” rather than “human beings”), the place of suffering, our delusions of control, and the fact of mortality. The exposure provided by dire circumstances illuminates the actual situation in such a way that the core or “heart” of the person can be more fully revealed. Science, the arts, theology, philosophy, personal experiences and relationships with others can also provide insights into the nature of the human person when in extremis that can not only help to bear the burdens found in these situations, but actually help to enable human flourishing. There emerge implications for actions that we might take to improve the lives of those in dire circumstances, help us to learn from these situations, and also better handle dire circumstances when we encounter them ourselves.

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human being as revealed in disability

The Human Being as revealed more fully in Disability and In Extremis. Lynn Underwood. European Research Network meeting: The human person in the 21st Century. Thessaloniki, Greece, April 22-25, 2007.


Interaction with people with severe disabilities and chronic disease, people at end of life, and people in other dire circumstances can inform our understanding of the human person.  This can happen through personal and professional interactions and in the context of scientific research. Direct experience of dire circumstances in our own lives can also contribute to insight. When combined with theological, philosophical and artistic explorations these interactions and experiences can lead to further reflection on the core, or “heart,” of the human being, revealing the nature of the human being more fully. This exploration could also provide us with some questions to pursue in greater depth using the tools of the sciences and the humanities.

Various illusions and assumptions do not hold up as people are exposed to situations such as disability, extreme suffering or experiences at end of life. These include assumptions concerning self-sufficiency, functionalism, the place of suffering, the ability to control and mortality. People with disabilities have learned that receiving help does not diminish who they are and that it can actually enhance the human person. Likewise, the disabled person is at a disadvantage in the world constrained by functional evaluations. This realization can expose the fundamental value of a human being as not necessarily identical with their functional status or their physical selves. Suffering can encourage people to draw on the religious sphere, and open sufferers and others to the reality of the spiritual and its intrinsic importance in life.  In the process of suffering one can see more clearly that there is more to a full life than superficial happiness and the pursuit of that happiness. When disabled,  suffering serious chronic disease or in other dire circumstances, it becomes obvious that we are not in control and we are forced to see that sense of control is a delusion.  The realization that death is inevitable affects how someone views life itself, and the fundamental nature of the human person.  Being faced with these situations in extremis can more fully reveal the full nature of the human person.

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