|Newfield News Article
Passing on the Flame of Life
By Reiner Lomb
Editor’s note: The Foundations Course moods and emotions conference was held Jan. 25 in Boulder, CO. A theme that presented itself among the participants during that conference was about loss and how to keep one’s balance in the face of loss—a death in one’s family, declining parents, job loss for oneself or for one’s clients, etc. The following article was submitted by a Foundations graduate present at the conference who was inspired to share his experience of spiritual questioning, loss, and renewal.
It was the next to the last day of my family’s 35-day walk along the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrim trail across north of Spain. My wife, son and I had begun our hike in Pamplona in the north east of Spain, pausing and lighting candles at each church along the way. Now, after hiking 800km, we were only one more day away from Santiago de Campostella in northwest Spain. Recognizing that we were suddenly close to our final destination, I wanted us to slow down, afraid we would reach the end too soon. So, we started the morning with a relaxed breakfast in an old Spanish café.
The morning sun shone through the windows, and the smell of fresh-baked croissants and coffee filled the room. While the owner talked to us from behind the counter, I looked at the photo on the wall above our table that showed her as a young woman together with her husband behind the same counter. I saw that the interior of the café hadn’t changed at all, but the owner had. I wondered, “Is she still the same person after so many years? Hasn’t she become somebody else who has only memories from earlier phases of her life?”
Each of the phases, from childhood through youth and adulthood, seem like a different life, and when we transition from one phase to the next, we give up our body and adopt another one while our memories survive.
Reflecting on my own life, I recalled how I couldn’t wait to rush through these transitions in earlier years. But since I’d entered midlife, I wanted to slow my pace of aging, like on that day when we were close to the final destination of our five-week hike. But even if I slowed my pace of walking, it would be just a matter of hours, maybe days, that I could prolong my walk. The same was true for aging. I could prolong my life, but not forever. Or could I?
The question would stay with me along the remaining walk to Santiago. While hiking through forests of eucalyptus trees with their unforgettable scent, I remembered two other experiences that occurred many years earlier, which gave me a new vision about life.
The first one occurred towards the end of a three-month journey across North Africa. Imed, an Islamic friend, had invited my wife and me to stay a couple of days with his family while we were passing through his hometown of Sfax in Tunisia. During that stay, Imed’s father invited me to join him for a conversation without the rest of the family. We sat down on a beautiful handmade carpet that is typical for the region. Imed’s father was brewing mint tea on a small table between us, the only furniture in the room. The almost-empty space offered an undisturbed atmosphere. I still remember the smell of fresh mint that filled the air.
I had become accustomed to Arabic tea ceremonies along our way through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. They had often become times of meaningful conversations and, in a couple of cases, the beginning of a new friendship. But this one would become the most memorable of all.
I was raised and educated as a Catholic, but I had left the Catholic Church years before. At the time of the conversation, I didn’t agree with many of the Christian dogmas anymore, nor did I support the hijacking of God by any particular religion. I respected all world religions, including Christianity and Islam, as just different ways to God. But Imed’s father, a Moslem and professor in Arabic, saw me as a Christian. I stepped hesitantly into the role that he expected me to play.
While he was filling our cups with the freshly brewed tea, he initiated a conversation about God by stating, “We (Moslems) believe in a single and almighty God who is the creator of the universe.” I didn’t hesitate to assure him, “Christians have the same definition.” But Imed’s father seemed unconvinced about the commonality that I emphasized.
We continued to debate this for a while until he asked the rhetorical question, “Don’t you distinguish three different kinds of Gods?” Although I could imagine what he meant, I asked back, “What do you mean?”
So he added, “You distinguish between God the father, the son, and the holy spirit.” He had brought up one of the most crucial differences between the Islamic and Christian belief system, the trinity of God, one of those beliefs that I never took literally. I replied, “This is difficult to explain,” in order to gain some time. He waited expectantly until I said, “Let me assure you, the Christians believe in one and the same God that Moslems believe in. The only difference is that God can appear in three different forms.” I could see the disbelief in his eyes and thought, “He has all the right in the world to question what I just said.” I did myself.
For the next 10 years after the conversation with Imed’s father, I carried his question about the trinity of God and its possible meaning in the back of my mind until my father suddenly died. When I received notice, I rushed immediately back to Germany. The evening after I arrived, the night before the funeral, my immediate family went to see our father one last time in the mortuary chapel at the small cemetery of our village.
It was already dawn when my two older brothers lifted the cover of the casket while the rest of us watched. When I saw my father’s body, I recognized that it was only his shell. His spirit had left the body. But I still felt his presence in that moment, maybe stronger than ever, and later that night, as well as the next night after the funeral when we gathered in my mother’s kitchen.
During our gatherings before and after the funeral, we were all sharing stories about my father, especially the lessons he taught us as children in which he passed on his timeless wisdom. Whenever someone shared a story about him, I realized that my father had taught the same lesson to me. As children we had often become tired of the stories he repeated again and again. Now I understood what the purpose was. By repeating his stories often, he consciously or subconsciously passed his spirit to us.
In that moment, I imagined his spirit to be like the flame of a candle that is burning down. That flame needs to be passed on to a new candle in order to survive. The same way the flame of a candle can survive, the spirit of a person can live on as long as it is passed on to others.
I knew then that I had an answer to the question that Imed’s father had asked 10 years earlier on my journey through North Africa. Suddenly, I recognized the definition of God as trinity (the father, the son and the holy spirit) as a metaphor about a common purpose of human beings, which is to pass the spirit from the father to the son or, more broadly, from oneself to others. In that way, our spirit survives our physical death and we become eternal.
With this in mind, there are two simple conclusions that should have a life-altering impact on how we perceive our purpose in life and, in particular, the process of aging and dying. The more we grow spiritually during our life, the more we can pass on to others. The fact that we become less body and more spirit as we age seems paradox, maybe even useless, unless our spirit lives on, which leads to the second conclusion. The more time and effort we spend during our life to share our spirit with others, the more we will survive and, more importantly, have an impact on the world long after we have left.
When we reached Santiago, I felt overwhelmed by joy. My fear from the day before—that we would reach the end too soon—had disappeared. One major reason was that I had just walked 35 days side-by-side with my son and wife which had given us more opportunity than ever to share our thoughts and spirit with each other. And it was only now that I suddenly realized the symbolic meaning of our stopping at every church and cathedral along the Camino and lighting new candles with the flame of the old ones that were about to die, hoping that others would follow and pass our flame to the next candle.
Reiner Lomb was born in Germany and lives with his family in Fort Collins, Colorado. For the last 20 years of his career, Reiner has been an entrepreneur, launching and developing new software business for Hewlett-Packard. He has held worldwide leadership roles in HP’s software business, including roles as marketing manager, business manager, director of global alliances, and business development manager.
Reiner has lived and worked in Germany and the United States and has extensive business experience in Asia. For the last five years, in addition to his role with Hewlett Packard, he has been following his interest in social and environmental innovation by acquiring an MBA in Sustainable Business, leading sustainability initiatives at the community level, providing consulting to socially responsible investment and biofuel technology companies, participating as a member of the Fort Collins climate task force, and launching a sustainability career coaching practice.
Reiner’s personal mission is mobilizing people for sustainability and accelerating social and environmental innovation. He is following his passion for coaching and is currently participating in the Newfield Coach Training Program. Besides his MBA in Sustainable Business from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute in Washington State, he has a master’s degree in computer science and a degree in electrical engineering from Germany.