Path to God through self-knowledge

Title: Path to God through self-knowledge–a talk given on retreat at Gethsemani Abbey

We already know one path to God, it is just around the corner—you go out the door and there is the Gate—just go through God Alone—that is the path to God, unfortunately, it is a restricted monastic area and we can’t go on that path.

However, I can do one better. You don’t have to even leave this room, to get on the path, St Teresa of Avila says, “the soul is advised to enter within itself.”

casey God alone

My topic today is self-knowledge as a path to God, I’ll begin with some lines from Psalm 19 on the theme of self-deception that grows out of presumption

12 Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.
13 Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.


What is self-knowledge?

Who am I and who is God? These two questions are fundamental to our being. Coming to the monastery, the novices are asked by the Abbott, “What do you seek?” As directed by the liturgy, they answer “The mercy of God, and the fellowship of this community.” To further the overall purpose of seeking God, I will draw upon the advice of St. Teresa of Avila, that self-knowledge is essential in the quest to know God. She writes:

I do not know if I have explained this clearly: self-knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it; so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more than humility. And so, I repeat that it is a very good thing — excellent, indeed — to begin by entering the room where humility is acquired rather than by flying off to the other rooms. (Teresa of Avila: First Mansions, Chapter 1)

To answer the question what self-knowledge is? we need to know what a self is and what knowledge is. As a trained philosopher, who has reflected on this question over several decades I have to be careful here and keep a rein on an analytic mania which could easily send me off galloping through several answers. These philosophical issues are important and that inquiry into those very large questions can be fruitful. However, I take it that this is a retreat setting and what we need is a working definition that we can use to help us grow in self-knowledge and draw closer to God.

On the one hand self-knowledge seems to be self-evident and just on the surface of things. I know my roles as husband, father, son; I know my immediate feelings (more or less)—this kind of knowledge is given in our everydayness. The depths of the feelings or the depth of our inhabiting roles may sometimes seem especially urgent and powerful. The loss of a mother, or a child may open a new depth to our everyday knowledge. So, one thing I want to say about self-knowledge is that as contemplatives we seek a certain depth of knowledge. Psalm 130 cries “out of the depths I have cried to you.” The Latin name of this Psalm “de profundis” also indicates, that we seek a deeper self-knowledge, a “something” hidden underneath what we already know.

In The Inner Experience Thomas Merton takes a stab a definition of the inner life. He writes, he inner self is, “first of all, a spontaneity, that is nothing if not free.” Spontaneity R us. Our true self is not a “thing” in us that we can find, it is a freedom to respond. A free receptivity is what we “really are.” It is out of this freedom, that we can find God. Merton also speaks of this inner life as a direct intuition. Intuition is a slippery sort of word but for Merton it is an experiential reality that is grasped by faith. This experience of God is what calls novices to the monastery and keeps those in the monastery satisfied to remain. However, this intuition does not come easily nor without many pitfalls and dangers. The Cistercian charism with its emphasis on humility also claims that there are dangers of self-deception common to us all—stemming from pride in our own knowledge as if we are the lords of knowledge and truth.

We must also caution ourselves to view self-knowledge as an unfolding process. There are facts about us that we do well to attend to, but our self-knowledge is something that reveals itself as we create ourselves day by day through our choices and loves—the depths (or perhaps the shallowness) of our hearts are revealed in these choices.

Teresa encourages her Carmelite sisters to think of our true self (or our soul) as a great castle. It has many rooms and dwellings, because our soul as created by God is meant as a dwelling place for God. She writes, “Sisters, we realize that the soul of the just person is nothing else but a paradise where the Lord finds his delight. So, then, what do you think that abode will be like where a King so powerful, so wise, so pure, so full of all things takes delight?”[1]

I’d like to pause for a moment here and ask you to join me on a guided meditation, loosely based on St. Teresa’s interior castle. So, if you don’t mind, please sit up straight, get comfortable and close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.

Guided meditation

  • I want you to “enter into yourself” and imagine yourself in a vast and expansive room, with three chambers. Look up to the top of the room and note how it extends upward, perhaps almost out of sight. You are in a great treasury. What do you see there in that expanse? Give yourself some time to take in its scope. It is the scope of your soul. It is large because in addition to housing you and all your possibilities, it also houses God.
  • As you look at the chambers you see three headings for the three chambers, Memory, Understanding and Will.
  • You look to the memory, there are your memories lighting up like glass globes, you see your mother’s memory, it lights, your family, your state, your nation and the memory of all peoples. All possible memories have a glass globe, marvel at the size knowing that all possible memories could come to you.
  • You look at the chamber called will and are given to understand that all your desires, loves and joys belong there, they light up green and blue and various colors. There is also room for the joys and loves of those you love they also fill the room—all possible loves and joys of all the world reside there. This room can house the joy of all nations. You are given to understand that when God comes into the will, all these globes will light up. Consider all the vastness of this, it is as vast as the Kingdom of God, it too has room for all the kingdom in it, your will, God’s will the will of all people can reside there.
  • Then in the middle of the three rooms, you notice a mirror. A nun is standing beside it. It is St Teresa of Avila. She beckons you toward it and you come beside her and to stand before the mirror. As you stand before the mirror, you look and see yourself; as you look Teresa tells you, “In this mirror, all the good that you see in your being and in your deeds come because they have their origin in God. You cannot look upon this mirror without giving praise to God and rejoicing in God’s power. If you turn away from the divine source all will go dark and how deep the darkness will be! But if you turn to God and in humility give God glory, you will shine with a beautiful light.”
  • Stand there before the mirror, look, take three deep breaths and then slowly bring yourself back to the conference room.

Let me talk further about Teresa’s castle. This Teresian image of a large castle with many dwellings, has a deepest center to it, the seventh dwelling, called the bridal chamber where God chooses to meet the soul in its deepest center. The spiritual life, as depicted by Teresa progresses by moving toward the center where the vision of God is seen intimately. However, it is not just in this inner room that we live or are deeply connected to God. The quote mentioned earlier shows Teresa urging those in her care not to go flying off to the inner rooms without first having a firm grounding in the first dwelling the room of humility and self-knowledge.

She stretches the castle metaphor by two compounding images—the image of a diamond and the image of a palmetto frond. As a Florida boy, I especially like this one. In in a palmetto the outer separate leaves are all bound to the center in a series of folds that come together in the center of frond. Similarly, the room of self-knowledge is also connected directly to the most interior chamber, like the outer edge of a palmetto is conjoined to a radiating center. The castle is also made of a diamond or clear crystal—the light of God’s presence in the interior can immediately and directly radiate into the room of self-knowledge; even the outer rooms can be illumined from God’s presence in the inner recesses of the soul. God can be seen just as clearly owing to the crystal structure. So that the true self is known as it is known by God—and we see ourselves as God sees us—face to face.

All this is rather abstract so far and so let me turn and talk about something practical and some of my own experience in self-knowledge and so I turn to something that happened in my past. It would be odd if I were to give a talk on self-knowledge as a path to God without talking about my self-knowledge. I can talk about myself a lot; my hope is that it won’t be painful to you. In Baptist-speak, I am going to give you my testimony. That’s proof that you can take the boy out of the Baptists, but you can’t take the Baptist out of the boy.

About 9 years ago, my youngest son, Casey Olmsted, was murdered. It was a shocking grief for me and our family. I was informed of this on my way driving to work. After I hung up, I just shouted in my car, “I can’t do anything, I can’t do anything.” My wife and I had “fixed” a lot of things for our son, but this was an irreparable harm. I had come to take part in LCG just slightly before this and I found significant help in the community that I had joined. Aside from dealing with the grief, I also had to deal with an intense hatred and anger, that grew up in me toward, Leland Burns, the 60-year-old man who had shot my son. I had violent fantasies I would lose myself in; from time to time I would look down and my fists would be balled up ready for a fight, or worse yet, positioning myself holding a gun. To put things into St. Teresa’s terms, things were not looking pretty in the room of self-knowledge, it was darkened with thoughts that did not have their origin in God. I was nurturing murderous thoughts that were not so great for my own happiness, but worse, I was harboring a mortal sin that would block the possibility of coming joyfully into the presence of God. The crystal nature of the soul can turn to black by turning away from God.

I came to know some very painful things in the room of self-knowledge, how fragile I and my loved ones are, how little control I have over my thoughts. Some had urged me to forgive right away. I was not ready for that, the advice that made the most sense was from Fr. James Conner who told me to pray that one day I would be able to forgive; that was something manageable. In that time, day by day I worked on the slow unclenching of my fists, when I recognized that they were clenched, a turning away from the fantasies that recurred. Thousands of re-directions later and over time some release of the anger and feelings of hate—but then something different happened. It had been about two years since his death, we were winding up a second civil trial after the murder trial and we had it arranged through his lawyer to meet with Mr. Burns and to receive his apology at the close of the trial. It was a few days before the trial, I was out in our sun-room one morning, keeping quiet, saying the Jesus prayer. I wasn’t sure if my forgiving Burns would be a betrayal of Casey and I had been asking God to show me what Casey’s mind was like and how forgiveness worked in heaven. All of a sudden, something came over me, a peace, a sense of being loved and of loving. If I had to tell you what it was exactly I experienced, I would tell you “blue.” There was an image of blue in my mind that enveloped me, amazing my mind, warming my heart and buoying me up in a joy. I believe this is what people call “the peace that passes all understanding.” I sat there, I don’t know how long, I think it was no more than 20 minutes. Believing that I had discovered this place in my mind, that I could go back to, I got up, I had a meeting I had to get to. Later, as I sat, I found that this was not something I could conjure. Fr. James advised me to look on it as a one-time event of grace that I was blessed to receive. I believe, perhaps, I even dare to say, “I know” this was from God. The safest way to put it, is as Merton does “a supernatural intensification of faith, it is an experiential grasp of God as present within our inner-self. ​”[2] God was moving in me, to love and to forgive.

If I understand this experience rightly, (a big if), God had showed me that within myself, and with the grace of God’s presence, I had that possibility to love and forgive that were far beyond what happened when I was putzing around by myself in the room of self-knowledge and humility. Through God’s power my soul had the power to transcend itself and to be divinized by grace. Gone were the impotent redirections of my own power that worked for a few moments and then I reverted back to hatred and pain. On my own, it was like I was trying to tear down a barn, pulling nail by nail and hauling it off board by board and then a flood came along leveled the barn and carried it down the river. Now I was moving swiftly and definitively to forgive with a magnanimity I could scarcely imagine. To tie this back to Teresa of Avila, I had experienced a great consolation from God. Teresa though is careful to say that such consolations are not to be expected on a regular and continuing basis. Certainly, she herself, had many consolations but they were intermittent.

Teresa distinguishes between two types of consolation by comparing them to water. One type of consolation is ordinary and is compared to the water delivered by aqueducts—it is a steady flow of grace by “natural” channels. On the other hand, there is the kind of water that is like a spring, a boundless surging up of water by its own power that delivers itself unbidden. When Jesus talks to the woman at the well, and says, “you will have water welling up in you, bubbling up into eternal life” I think that he is referring to a kind of experiential divine power that our souls are created to receive. My testimony to you, is that there is a great well-spring possible within us. I know that I will not be able to fully explain this to you. It can easily seem like passing feeling. But I tell you it carried in it a great power from beyond. As a Florida boy, looking into the great springs and the rivers that issued out of them, the notion of a crystal fountain that comes from the mouth of the earth to give life-giving water is a powerful one.

On the strength of this experience, I was able to sit down with Mr. Burns at the close of his trial and to accept the forgiveness he tried to tender to my wife and me. I could, in a very limited fashion, wish him well. My wife and I listened to him and in sympathy for him accepted that his life had been broken by this too. Perhaps, someone in the back of the room, is thinking, that’s all well and good, but Casey is just an excitable fellow, prone to all kinds of fancies. I get that, I have those same feelings of self-doubt. I have had some strange things happen, sometimes the hair on the back of neck will stand up and I will feel moved in a certain direction—but perhaps it is not God; perhaps it is static electricity or something. The scriptures tell us to test every spirit; St. Teresa urges that you have a reliable spiritual director as a sounding board.

When we test these experiences, what do we look for? Teresa’s answer is a simple three words: Deeds, deeds, deeds. Do these experiences produce deeds of loving kindness? This is the point of God’s revelations in us, to reform us, to make us grow in love, and to convert our manners. The experiences, as powerful as they are, are not ends in themselves so that we collect religious experiences like baseball trading cards—it is that we grow in the love of God and the love our neighbor. One thing I will say about my experience that leads me to believe is that it has a kind of continuing passive effect that works itself in me without effort or consciousness on my part. Teresa’s compadre, St. John of the Cross, is very eloquent about this working of God in us when we are cooperative but also passively in us when we are not particularly thinking about God. For example, even now when I see the sky a certain color blue, I am taken back to the moment and buoyed in my joy and peace. It is not something that I can conjure, it is rather something that conjures me. A coffee mug that my oldest son made for me is a particular color of blue that I can look at and grow stronger in just seeing.

One of the ongoing effects of this experience happened very recently when I was walking into Wal-Mart and came to see by total accident Leland Burns the man who had killed my son, Casey. I wrote a poem about the event, but the poem is unbelievably bad. So bad that I cannot share it with you—but I have found just the right poem that can capture something of what I was trying to say. However, to set the stage for the poem I need to tell two stories; pay attention Br. Frederick, they are Irish stories and they may help to answer a question about the spiritual state of Ireland that you were asking me about. I know this is what we might call an abrupt shift—just bear with me through these two stories and the poem and I’ll wrap things up.

The first story is about an Irishman named Gordon Wilson. Gordon Wilson was a working man, a draper. He worked with his daughter in a business and one day, his daughter was killed, and he was badly injured in a payback bombing that later came to be known as the Innisfree atrocity.  A few days after the bombing, Gordon Wilson appeared on national tv, arm still in a sling, plaster cast on and said that he forgave the killers of his daughter and called out for peace. That’s the first story.

Here’s the second, a notable Irish poet, Michael Longley was inspired by Gordon Wilson’s magnanimity in this and he wanted to use part of this inspiration to contribute as a poet to what might be called a “peace process.” Longley was put in mind of the greatest war poem ever, the Iliad. At the close of the story Achilles has finally killed Hector in vengeance for Hector’s killing of his beloved Patroclus. In his fury, Achilles wishes to do more than kill, he wishes to mutilate Hector’s corpse and ties it to his chariot and drags it round and round outside the city gate. At the end of the day, his fury still raging, the father of Hector, King Priam, goes to Achilles at night to beg for the body of his dead son. It is this scene from the Iliad that the poet Michael Longley puts into a sonnet.

Michael Longley, “Ceasefire”

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’

It’s a beautiful poem. Longley says that when he was writing it, and the part about Priam he had in mind Gordon Wilson’s face as the image of King Priam.

And so, with that poem in mind, I recall seeing. It seems to call up what I want to say happened when I ran into my son’s killer, Leland Burns. I was traveling to Bowling Green and stopped at the center of the world where all roads cross, you know, Wal-Mart, to get something. Upon entering the store, I saw him. I did a double take, like I couldn’t believe it was him. I was not recognized but I stared at him. He was not the man with the hollowed-out eyes, thin from jail food. Here he was a fisherman’s tan, dark and beautiful, a tee shirt with the sleeves cut out and emblazoned with the logo of Lynard Skynard, cradling a mountain dew and leaning over and joking with his buddy with him. I had been wondering if he had recovered but here was the answer staring me in the face. Yes! I was tempted to say, “hi.” Or to call out his name—I wanted to but, where would any conversation go after that? I remained content just to watch, it was enough to see him restored. I was able to be hospitable in my gaze, and I gave thanks to God, I could do that, almost effortlessly because of what God had worked in me. I was, free of the presumptuous sin of judging him as if I were God and my hatred was God’s hatred. I could be whole and sound, free of a great offense. I could be free to love this one who had once been a hated enemy.

And so, I close with the scripture that I began with.

Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.
Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my

heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.



Self-knowledge: Humility

“I have said a great deal elsewhere, daughters, about the harm which comes to us through our not properly understanding this matter of humility and self-knowledge . . . it is a matter of the greatest importance to us.” (Teresa of Avila: First Mansions, Chapter Two)

I do not know if I have explained this clearly: self-knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it; so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more than humility. And so I repeat that it is a very good thing — excellent, indeed — to begin by entering the room where humility is acquired rather than by flying off to the other rooms. (Teresa of Avila: First Mansions, Chapter 1)

Self-knowledge and Knowing God

As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God: let us think of His greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating upon His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble. (Teresa of Avila: First Mansions, Book Two)

Sisters, we realize that the soul of the just person is nothing else but a paradise where the Lord finds his delight. So, then, what do you think that abode will be like where a King so powerful, so wise, so pure, so full of all things takes delight? I don’t find anything comparable to the magnificent beauty of a soul and its marvelous capacity. Indeed, our intellects, however keen can hardly comprehend it, just as they cannot comprehend God; but He Himself says that he created us in His own image and likeness. Teresa of Avila: First Mansions, chapter 1.1, p.35)

A few more comments from Teresa deserve mentioning. According to St. Teresa, we enter into ourselves through the door of prayer and reflection. She says that prayer and reflection are not just verbal utterances; in speaking we must know who we are and who we are addressing. It is shameful to have no memory of who we are like some amnesiac. Teresa writes,
‘a prayer in which a person is not aware of whom she is speaking to, what she is asking, who it is asking and of whom, I do not call prayer, however much the lips may move.” Interior Castle, First Dwelling, 1. 7, p.38

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Michael Longley, “Ceasefire”

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’

At the Crossroads, Ken Casey

There, at the center of the world, where all roads meet

The Wal-Mart entry way, silver locks down

dangling over his shoulders. Farmer tanned, black tee shirt,

cut off sleeves emblazoned with Lynard Skynard


The man who murdered my son,

Smiling, joking with his buddy

Cradling a liter of mountain dew next to some motor oil.

An old question rears up, can we recover?


Nine years ago, eyes sunken, hair tied back

Ghostly pale and thinned from prison food

Like one ridden hard and put up wet

You had tendered a gesture in a broken apology


How far from then we are now!

The shame washed off, you move free

Like a broken hand healed

Fingers, now deft, nimble, dancing across the frets–rippling grace notes through music





[1] First Dwelling, chapter 1, 1. P. 35

[2] Merton, Inner Experience, p. 12


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The Building Bridges Project



Hopkinsville Community College

Hopkinsville, Kentucky

Building Bridges


In 1997 Kentucky legislators formed the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) combining community colleges from the University of Kentucky system and technical schools from the secondary system. This legislation created a network of 16 community colleges and 70 campuses located throughout Kentucky. Hopkinsville Community College (HCC) is part of this network.  KCTCS serves 97,000 students, and awards nearly 28,000 credentials yearly.   KCTCS has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to international education through a partnership with the Kentucky Institute for International Education, study abroad opportunities, and a Global Studies and International Partnerships program.

HCC students are themselves a diverse group, with 26% of its population identified as African American; 4% Hispanic; 3% Asian; 1% Native American and 57% White.  HCC has accordingly been  part of KCTCS’ globalization initiatives since their inception. HCC has two campuses, one in Hopkinsville and one on post at Ft. Campbell offering classes to military members and their families.   At Fort Campbell, globalization initiatives focus upon offering curriculum that help enlisted personnel and their families gain a better understanding of the cultures of those regions in which they serve.  Another facet of the college’s commitment to diversity has involved a project to build ties between Hopkinsville and the Tibetan community of Dharamsala, India. As of this writing, HCC has sponsored two three-week service-learning trips to Dharamsala for groups of students and acuity, while the campus has also invited Tsering Phuntsok, a Buddhist monk of 25 years, has been invited to speak on the campus as well as sister colleges in KCTCS on Buddhist and Tibetan issues.  HCC’s cooperative project with the Tibetan community of Dharamsala continues a regional tradition begun by Thomas Merton, a Kentucky monk, who initiated a 1968 exchange with the Dalai Lama; after Merton’s death, the initiative continued with events like the Gethsemani encounter and MID—Monastic Inter-faith Dialogue.



HCC’s Bridging Cultures proposal grew out of a commitment to develop curriculum in the Humanities that would support these intercultural ties.  Faculty who had already played a critical role in the design of the service-learning travel course sought to further globalize curricular offerings by pairing a religion course with an introductory course in expository writing that  already included a strong foundation in the humanities.


The Bridging Cultures project had several components.  Faculty developed new modules for the  two courses, and added a new course to the common catalogue for KCTCS.  Since we are a small college and have only one full-time religion instructor, we decided to  bridge cultures by drawing upon common topics in broad, international, human and religious issues.  Although the original impetus of the plan was a focus upon India and Buddhism, we decided to incorporate Islam, as well, scheduling intercultural speaking events on campus that would cover Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim traditions. Eventually we developed a new course in comparative religions called Comparative Ethics of Religion, which can now be used across the KCTCS system. The topics addressed in this course could be paired with composition courses or humanities courses across KCTCS.


Ken Casey (the professor of religion) and Amanda Sauermann  (professor of English literature and composition) linked Introduction to Religion and Writing II courses by using Humanities texts to explore the following common themes:

•           Meaning of Life

•           Poverty and Wealth Attainment

•           Nonviolence

•           Torture and Imprisonment

•           Women and Society

•           Marriage and Parenting

•           Refugee and Immigration Status

•           Theocracy and Democracy


Humanities resources (see list below) were selected by determining what type of writing fit within each course The composition texts consisted of position-based essays, films, and historic documents. The religion texts combined religious scripture with primary source documents. 

We also engaged campus faculty and the wider community by sponsoring lectures relevant to module themes.  Our project mentor, Dr. Emily Tai, spoke at both college campuses on the history of Islam.  Tsering Phuntsok and Dr. Casey spoke on the topic of loving enemies, each focusing on his own religious tradition.  Our speakers addressed classes at our campus and other community colleges.  Phuntsok visited the religion class for two weeks and was available on campus for tea and conversation.   Local press covered Phuntsok’s visit.


The results of the grant have led to several sea changes in the faculty and in the students.  Amanda Sauermann noted that the new modules have invigorated her writing classes and stimulated active learning.  For example, instead of asking students to write argumentative essays on traditional topics (i.e. capital punishment or guns), students in the composition course are now required to find one text on their own that relates to the module theme. Students then write summaries and explain how their chosen text relates to the theme. During the module on Poverty and Wealth, one student wrote about Peter Buffet’s book Life is What You Make It. The documentary, Queen of Versailles, was also added to the Poverty and Wealth module.  These texts, in particular, generated lively discussions on American and global economic policy.  In the religion classes, face-to-face interactions  also bridged cultures.  Hizreth Linares, a student in the religion class was so excited about the Buddhist monk that she invited him to speak at her alma mater, a local Catholic grade school. 

HCC will continue to develop curriculum and relationships with a global perspective.  Another trip to Dharamsala, hosted by Tsering Phuntsok, is planned for summer, 2014, as is another visit from Phuntsok in spring, 2014.  Plans are also underway to bring a visitor from Egypt to discuss his perspective on Islamic/Christian relations in his country.

Other faculty within the Humanities division have been inspired by Bridging Cultures work to develop new courses to enhance understanding of other cultures. For example, a course entitled “Immigrant Literature” has been added to the humanities curriculum. The course explores a number of selected literary texts produced by writers who have immigrated to the United States from a broad range of countries. 

Through the NEH/CCHA grant, a small college in rural Kentucky has utilized the humanities to “bridge cultures”  in a way that has energized faculty, students and our community.



David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster

Atul Gawande, Letting Go

Dalai Lama, Christ and the Bodhisattva Ideal

Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva

Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God

Bernard of Clairvaux, “On the death of my brother Gerard” from Sermons on the Canticle

Martin Luther King, “Loving your enemies”.

M. K. Gandhi, “The Practice of Satyagraha” or Civil Disobedience

Sallie Tisdale –“ We Do Abortions Here: A Nurse’s Story”

Song of Solomon

Eleanor Roosevelt, On the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address

Dalai Lama, “Human rights and Universal Responsibility”



Stephen Carter, The Separation of Church and State

Mark Twain, Reflections on Religion (excerpts 1, 2, 3, 4, &5).

Dalai Lama, Compassion: Where the World’s Religions Come Together

Social Indicators of Marital Health & Well-Being, The National Marriage Project Website

Steven Pinker, The Moral Instinct



Dr. Jay Allen, President/CEO                        

Hopkinsville Community College      

Hopkinsville, Kentucky 42241                                              



Dr. Ken Casey, Professor of Philosophy/Religious Studies  

(270) 707-3884

Team Members

Prof. Amanda Sauermann, Professor of English, Hopkinsville Community College


Dr. Kristin Wilson, Associate Professor, Educational Administration, Leadership, & Research, Western Kentucky University


Dr. Ken Casey, Professor Hopkinsville Community College



Dr. Emily S. Tai, Associate Professor of History

NEH/CCHA Bridging Cultures in Community Colleges Project Mentor

Queensborough Community College, CUNY


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Lost in the woods at Mammoth Cave–I am forced to walk in matters and mysteries beyond me

I am aware of the danger, but I will not refuse to meet it, for you force me to it. Indeed, you force me to walk in great matters and mysteries which are beyond me. —

—————Bernard, Sermons on the Canticle 74

October 4, 2012

Today in church, elation at being safely home and alive and surviving a harrowing night lost in Mammoth cave.

Many thoughts, mostly about Casey and Leah. Here’s one memory of Casey.  Casey had a tattoo of a suffering Jesus bearing the cross on his right arm.


Casey’s tattoo of Jesus

I think that he identified with the suffering of Christ, through his own sufferings.  He went in to talk with our interim priest, Nicolette Papanek, about his tattoo; naturally he was quite proud of it.  She told him that he needed to have a risen Christ and a joyous image to balance things out a bit.  He laughed and agreed with her.  In the strict sense he never did have a Risen Christ tattooed on him, but for joy later he “balanced” his Christ on the right side with a tattoo of his daughter.

Leah was his overriding joy in life, in the way that our children are to us.  I think of her as both an image of Christ to me as well as an image of Casey—she is a living image, hallelujah for that life!


Casey’s tattoo of Leah


As I sat there in church I thought about getting a tattoo: on one arm I would get the suffering Christ that Casey had and on the other a tattoo of the risen Christ, something like the risen Christ off of the Grunewald triptych.  Instead, I would have Casey’s face inscribed.  The thought brought me great joy as I sat there.  The joy remains, but I am too old school to tattoo myself.  Instead of a tattoo on my arm, I have Casey, Leah and Jesus inscribed upon my heart as a permanently etched feature.  Last night I came to feel it deeply while we were lost in the woods.


Grunewald’s Risen Christ

After about an hour in the woods when it was dark, I had a diabetes low.  I was sweating from carrying Leah, it was growing cold, I was chilled and I had no energy.  Even if I was trying to keep up appearances, I could do nothing but lay down.  I could feel the drag in my own body, a dread that I would faint or even worse that I would die.  The weakness of the body at the extreme edge of fatigue has a way of preparing us for saying good-bye to everything.  And so we all lay down together in the dark of the woods, several times I was coming near to a point of not caring about anything.  At some point though, I came into a second wind, whether it was a miracle from heaven or the body’s natural reserve, I was grateful for it and received it as a Godsend.

We marched along and with each step, I thought of the suffering of Christ as he climbed the mountain carrying his cross—all I wanted to do with my weakness was to walk with Christ in His.  I lifted Leah up and put her on my shoulder and felt a sudden joy.  At that moment I had only one desire to carry her and to walk on—strange to speak of it as bliss, but it was; my deepest joy and all I needed in that moment was to walk.  My great concern was that I somehow faint or falter or in any way fail.  I could stop and rest if I needed, but I could not lie down and stay as I was earlier feeling. Casey, Jesus, Leah and I all seemed together there in an effort to ascend in the dark.  One other saint seemed to join me, St. Christopher, the one who bore the child Jesus across the river.  This was all part of the second wind and then later after we returned home part of the elation I was feeling with making it through the night and then to church the next day.  Perhaps it is the same elation felt by those who are shot at and missed—after that just the joy of being alive, or having a bed seems more than enough.

Leah herself was a great help.  She kept thinking that some people would find us.  She talked too, helpful talk.  There was some “I want my mommy,” but on the whole she bravely met the demands laid upon her.  The cheerful banter was good for me and for all of us in the group.  “Grandpa,” she asked from atop my shoulders, “why is there a place on your head without any hair?”  Talking with Melanie about her friends, she mentioned especially her friend “baby Jesus.”  With bold confidence she told us how baby Jesus played baseball with her as well as hide-and-seek.  It was her voice too that I think gave us a greater boldness as we approached some campers.  We had been walking very slowly in the dark.  For a while I was using the green glow of my insulin pump to find the trail.  Jane was using her wristwatch and then the glow from her camera.  The rocks, branches, and mud made for treacherous walking.  Finally we saw a campfire in the distance and made our way toward it.

We were so relieved to get three things from the campers, 4 flashlights, 5 protein bars and perhaps most important directions on how to get out.  It was midnight and we were still a good two and a half miles from our car, mostly up a pretty steep hill but the flashlights were a notable help—even though I would later take a pretty good fall on the path.  As I look back on it now, I realize how greatly important light is in the darkness.  I recall reading Martin Laird’s book, A Sunlit Absence and his talk about three kinds of illuminations, walking by torchlight, walking by moonlight, and then in the sun.  For Laird these three images are metaphors for the inner life with God.  Walking by torchlight was for me both a metaphor and a reality that night.  Walking by torchlight is a metaphor for a faith that is small and the grace given to that faith is also limited to a “restricted” area of illumination.  Rather than God’s glory illuminating the whole of the world as in the moonlight or in sun, only a small area is clear and often what is revealed is also slightly concealed.

Leah led me by torchlight after we got our flashlight.  We often trailed behind the rest of the group.  I gave her the flashlight and then used the immediate light to try to walk behind. I was needing to put her down more and more and since she liked carrying the flashlight, I let her lead. At the beginning of the hike she had been a very demanding line-leader and now that it had gone dark she was a little more solicitous.  She also was quite sensitive to how much I needed to rest and we negotiated quite well taking turns with her walking and being carried.  As we moved ahead by torchlight, I got tripped up on a root and fell pretty hard.  She quickly turned around, asked if I was okay while I was trying to get up quickly and make it seem like it was nothing.  I told her that I needed her help and to hold her hand to keep from falling.  “OK, Grandpa,” she said. From then on she and I held hands.  Walking beside her made the visibility of the torchlight better, but there is also something comforting about having a child’s hand in yours.

The gospel reading on Sunday this morning included Jesus’ teaching “whoever does not receive the gospel as a little child cannot enter the kingdom.”  Often that is taken to mean the need for child-like faith but to me it seems like receiving a child’s hand into your own is receiving an earthly manifestation of the kingdom of heaven.  There are two times in my life where I remember how much having a supple child-sized hand in my calloused one.  Leah’s is one—the other time I was in India for the first time.  I was walking with Tsering’s niece, Tenzin Dolkar. I was feeling a little lonely—far away from home.  We were walking around the mountain trail, doing cora and saying our prayers together.  Suddenly she slipped up behind and put her hand in mine and at once I felt “at home” despite being on the other side of the world.  That little orphan girl had done me a great service.

Leah and I walked along, hand in hand, in the darkness with the “torchlight.”  Her hand also illumined me.  It was the light of her love that sustained me and was part of God’s voice speaking to me.  Christ’s hand, Casey’s hand, all were wrapped up in her tiny hand as we made our way in the darkness.


In Mammoth Cave Park–October 3,2012

After a while it was too much for her little body and she fell asleep.  David, Melanie, and I then took turns carrying her.  Jane’s ankles were hurting badly.  She had twisted them and now had two walking sticks to trudge on with.  Jane had carried her earlier though and fell with her (gently enough) but still she did not want to risk another.  We finally reached the car at around 1:45 in the morning.  We got our water, settled into the luxury of padded seating, and then some warmth as the car’s heateritself out on our feet, wet and cold from tromping through the parts of the horse-trail that had puddled over.  When we got home, our bed was so welcome.  With all the vigor of Dorothy in Wizard of Oz we could say with great relish, there is no place like home.

It had been a hard night and when I woke up I could have easily said, I am too stiff, too sore and too tired for church.  But there was a bubbling joy, the same joy that had borne me through the night and missing church would have seemed to me like a terrible ingratitude.  The scriptures seemed strong that day, the petitions urgent and the communion especially sweet.  Thank you Jesus, thank you Casey, thank you Leah, thank you my wayfarers and benefactors.  May God lead us all through the dark and safely home.


October 4, 2012. Today is a special day, Hildegaard of Bingen is officially recognized as a Doctor of the Church.


Hildegaard of Bingen, Blue Christ

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Last Day in Delhi

July 20, 2012

Our final day here in Delhi.  Tsering had organized a trip to the Ramakrishna Ashram near our motel for a time of meditation.  We left the comfort of our air conditioned hotel and a refreshing sleep to step into 91degree heat even at the early hour of 6:30.  Things were a little bit slow in the streets but the trash was being swept and people were starting to fill the streets.  We walk by beds out on the street  and a group of men sleeping on the ground. Flies are everywhere—it is a harsh walk but what truly brought us face to face with the harsh realities here was a dead man set out on the side of the road.  Flies swarmed around his eyes in a black cloud.  We paused briefly Tsering says, “many people die in the night.” We walk on, but how can we meditate after seeing this?  Certainly there can be no peaceful easy feeling beside an honest conscience. 

Yet death is often the first thing I think of when I pray; my son, Casey, is always very near the start of my morning prayers.  A prayer that he will be taken care of, lifted up and embraced—today I joined the prayer for him with the prayer for this man, exposed, seemingly alone. Together our small group sits in the hot temple and sweat starts to roll down my back.  A young Indian praying at the front of the temple gets up, prepares to leave and (thankfully) switches on the overhead fan.  We make out way back to the motel.  The man has been covered up with a piece of tarp, his legs stick out.  A woman  is now beside him crouched and begging.  Maybe it is his wife.  I don’t know.  Something must be done it seems—but nothing can be done much.  I offer her a small bit of money—we move on. 

Delhi is city of (I believe) 16 million people.  On any given night about a million of them are on the street and homeless.  On our arrival in Delhi, we saw hordes of people sleeping on the median in the street.  I had intended to end the blog of the India trip on a positive note and to talk about the Tibetan practice of “dedication of merit” but the jarring realities of the start of the morning here cannot support that.  Later today we will visit the Gandhi museum—seeing the suffering of India seems a fitting way to begin a visit to Gandhi’s home—the one who strove so mightily to address the troubles of a nation.

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The Dalai Lama’s Birthday

Dalai Lama’s Birthday

The press of the crowd was great today to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday.  Being crowd shy I was hoping to go in late just in time.  In terms of timing I was about 3 minutes late to see the Dalai Lama and so as I was walking in I was walking upstream in a human river.  Though my luck was bad for seeing the Dalai Lama, it was good for seeing an old friend, Kunchok Rapten—he was my star student when I was teaching English in at LHA in 2009. So we heard a little music, saw a little dancing, got some blessed food and then headed to Chonnor house—the Dharamsala equivalent of heaven– for tea.  We sat in a nice tea garden and talked.  Kunchok’s memory and English are so good that I got what I would not have gotten if I had actually seen the Dalai Lama—an English translation of his talk.

I will share it with you.  For convenience sake I will put it in first person as the Dalai Lama’s words. 

I am happy to have your kindness today extended to me to celebrate my birthday, but as a Buddhist I want to say that birthdays are not very important—or rather, this day is not all that unique.  Each day that I wake up, I am a new being.  We are all born each new day.  It is important to meet the day thinking, ‘I have a new start.’  I must use this day very wisely.  I must ask, ‘what good I can do on this day?’  It is so important to use this new life well.

It was a little longer than this, and perhaps something is missing between the actual words and Kunchok’s memory and the translation—but I feel lucky to have heard this message and need to think about what it means for me today. 

I close with a final cultural note—most Tibetans do not know their birthday or do not celebrate them.  Buddha’s birthday and the Dalai Lama’s are celebrated as special holidays.  “Common” people will generally not know their birthday; they will only know their birth year.  I have heard one Buddhist reason for this practice given: that the focus on the ego that comes along with having “my birthday” is best avoided.  I think that the Dalai Lama gave his subjects a very special gift—he told them that today is their birthday.  A people who had none, now have one every day.  Happy Birthday Dalai Lama, and, in accordance with his teaching and his present to us, happy birthday to us all.

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Cora in the morning

Yesterday Tsering led our group on a walking meditation. Tibetans call it Cora and it is often translated as circumambulation.  We circled the mountain of the Dalai Lama temple and residence.  It was especially auspicious because the Dalai Lama was there, it was the day before his birthday and so we “circled” him with our prayers for his long life and happiness.  Toward the end of the walk we passed a little café where an enterprising and very cheerful Indian has built a little café on the mountainside—very simple, little more than a shack and a table and some charis.  We had stopped in for Chai the day before.  He must sleep in his little café over the night because as we came by he was just waking up.  He saw us passing.  He wished us a good morning and then began to lift his voice exuberantly.  “It is a good morning, I can breathe, I am alive, I can see you walking by me. I am breathing, I am alive.  Joy, joy joy.”  Only wish that the words I write here could capture the singing melody it came in, the wonderful Indian accent that builds the high notes right into it and turns the sentence up a note or too at the close of every phrase.  I can’t capture it now.  You had to be there and hear it—Luckily I was there—by grace or providence or luck.

On Cora, it is hard to know what to expect but during prayers and mediation it is important to be vigilant.  I had been “attending to my breath” (aka huffing and puffing) while I was ascending a steep grade.  However, I was not attending as deeply as the shopkeeper.  I joked to the group and to Tsering—he was a fully realized master.  I hadn’t expected to gain enlightenment on the walk or to meet anyone on the edge of nirvana—but there I was face to face with a seemingly ordinary café owner who had learned to measure his breath.  Joy! Joy! Joy!  I am breathing, I am writing to you!  Joy! Joy! Joy! You are reading this, Your eyes are working. Life is a precious gift.  Tashi Delek.

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Cora path

Cora path

This is the entry to the path to Cora–right outside our guesthouse.

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