These blog entries were written from 2005-2006, during my time just before, and in seminary. Upon re-reading these, and reflecting on them, I realize that there is a willingness to engage in spiritual and religious thinking and teaching that I seem to have become reticent to do since leaving seminary in 2006. I thought it would be worth sharing these, and perhaps they will encourage me to do more writing of this sort.
Self-fulfilling prophecies 05/16/2005
I’m beginning to think that many prophecies are self-fulfilling, once they are believed to be real. I’m talking about prophecies as small as “I can’t possibly climb that mountain” to as big as “Jesus Christ is coming again” (more on that one later.) I think it’s human nature. We tell ourselves stories, some of which we really want to be true (changes we want to make, or things we want to see happen), and some stories we tell ourselves because we’ve learned over many years to tell those stories, and assume they are true, even if they are unpleasant.
An example. When I was 16 and 17 years old, I had hip surgery. At 16, I had a sports accident, and my hip joint moved out of it’s socket. Because I hadn’t finished growing at that point, they had to put a pin in my hip, so that my leg would continue to grow properly. At 17, they did another surgery to take the pin out. The orthopedic surgeon told me that “in 10 years, you will have arthritis in that hip.” Precisely 10 years later, the hip started to hurt when it rained, and I started to limp, and, yes, indeed, I had arthritis. Now it could be that he was an amazingly good orthopedic surgeon, or that 75% of all people who get this surgery get arthritis in precisely 10 years. I didn’t get arthritis in 8 or 12 years, I got it in 10 years, exactly so.
Is it that I was telling myself for all those years that “I’ll get arthritis in 10 years” and so I, in a sense made it so? I have found that the negative prophecies I tell about my body (it’s falling apart) seem to happen. But so do the positive prophecies I tell about my work. I have to start asking myself, how many prophecies do I really have going? Do I really want all of these to become self-fulfilling?
The Buddha said that the cause of suffering is attachment. Attachment can be articulated as craving, aversion, or delusion – attachment to something that is not real. From the Buddha’s teaching, part of the process of freeing oneself from suffering is to see the origin of our attachments, to pay attention to them, which will help us be free of them.
The great Zen master Send Ts’an said “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.” I’ll leave that for you to ponder.
But what about the big prophecies. The ones we latch onto and believe as cultures? Do those work similarly? I don’t know that I have a good answer, although I do know that if we want to believe that a prophecy has come true we’ll do a lot to find a way to make it so (remember the Harmonic Convergence?)
The big one I worry about, of course, is the set of prophecies that fundamentalist Christian (specifically pre-millenial dispensationists) believe most strongly. They believe these are the “last days,” that they will be “taken up to heaven to join the Lord in the air,” they believe in a set of conditions leading to the final battle, the battle of armageddon. How can you make decisions that will affect generations if you don’t believe there are any (or many) generations left before the big event?
Millions of people have read the Left Behind series, which lays out this set of beliefs in an easy-to-digest form. And makes it that much easier to swallow whole. There is rising up, a whole new genre of fiction (yes, please remember, this is fiction) that is based on this set of beliefs.
I think we need to take a few pointers from Buddha and the Zen master Ts’an, in the prophecies about our lives we tell ourselves, and the prophecies we tell about our world. I think the way of wisdom might be to see things as they are, understand where our prophecies come from, and let them go.
The Good Samaritan 05/18/2005
One of my favorite stories of the bible (and many people’s) is the parable of the “good samaritan.” (Luke 10:23-36) I know when I was a kid, I didn’t know what a Samaritan was, except that the guy helped some poor dying soul on the road. It was a model of good Christian citizenship. I understand this story much better now.
I think we get told the Disney version of that story. I want to tell the John Sayles version.
So Jesus is hanging out with his disciples, telling them about the kingdom of God. Then this theologian from, say, Yale Divinity School gets up, and asks “So, dude, what can I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said “well, what does the bible say?” The theologian scratches his beard, and says “To love God with all of my heart, soul and strength, and love my neighbor like I love myself.” Jesus nods his head, tells they guy he has the right answer. But, of course the theologian isn’t satisfied, so he asks Jesus “and who is my neighbor?” Jesus then tells the parable of the good Samaritan.
This hapless person was walking down the street, and some street thugs mugged him, beat him up, and left him for dead. One person, say, a well regarded evangelist, saw the guy bleeding on the ground, and crossed the street to avoid appearing to have seen him at all. Another person, maybe a politician, did the same thing. Then, a transexual walks by, and sees this poor guy, bleeding on the road. He takes out some towels he has in his backpack, and begins to stop the bleeding. He calls 911 on his cell, and accompanies the victim to the emergency room, and stays with him until his family arrives.
Now why am I using an transexual in this story? It’s because of who the Samaritans were. Samaritans were definitely on the outs at the time, they were considered second class citizens. I think that part of the story often gets lost. Jesus used the Samaritans to illustrate the question of who our neighbors are. Everyone. Who treated the unknown person with mercy? The second class citizen. So who is our neighbor? Exactly who we think isn’t. The people (who ever they are) who we don’t think are like us, who we like to think aren’t as good as we are. And how is it we are supposed to love them? Like we love ourselves. And what does this give us? Well, in Christian parlance, eternal life. That’s the whole shebang.
Since I’m not real sure about what I think about eternal life, what I will say, is this is about as clear a message that there is from the bible, that God is about love, not about law or even belief. And that the most important thing we can do, in terms of how we live together as human beings, is love each other, just as much as we love ourselves, and by extension, our friends, lovers and families.
And this doesn’t get me off the hook. I happen not to have a hard time loving transexuals. It’s the fundamentalists and neo-conservatives I have a hard time with.
I spent some quality time last week with a friend who has been through the fire, and is slowly coming out. She pointed out an article written by Andrea Dworkin, a month before she died (she died on April 9 of this year). The article, called “Through the Pain Barrier” is something everyone should read.
I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering lately, for a variety of reasons. Many of us with a Buddhist practice think about suffering a lot. Well, at least I do. It’s imbedded in the root of what the Buddha taught, the first noble truth: we all suffer. I also have been thinking about it from a more er, theistic point of view lately, what is there to learn from suffering, what are we supposed to learn?
I’ve been reading Simone Weil. She is a very hard philosopher/mystic to get one’s head around, although I think I’m getting there, slowly. She has some very interesting things to say about affliction (in french: malheur, which apparently only vaguely translates to affliction). She separates affliction from physical suffering, suggesting affliction is a more permanent state: “Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain.” Yikes. (It’s no wonder she relates to it this way, she had terrible headaches for most of her life.)
But she goes on to explain that although “Affliction makes God appear to be absent for a time…” if we persevere, “…God will come to show himself to this soul and to reveal the beauty of the world to it…” But if we don’t persevere: “But if the soul stops loving it falls, even in this life, into something almost equivalent to hell.” This is pretty powerful. (these quotes are from her essay, called “The Love of God and Affliction” and is published in the collection “Waiting for God“.)
I keep thinking that it is in my suffering that perhaps I get closest to my real self. It’s beyond the self that’s hurting, the self that wants the suffering to end, NOW. The frustrated, angry self that never wanted to suffer in the first place. It’s beyond the self that feels complete aversion to the suffering, the self that wants to hide the suffering. Finally, it’s the self that recognizes the suffering as something that everyone experiences, that is our common bond. It’s the self that can see her own clinging, and her own aversion, recognize it for what it is, and where it comes from. It’s the self that perseveres, no matter what, so that the she can see the beauty of the world.
I have a tatoo on my arm, that I got a year ago. It’s Kwan Yin (there are many spellings of her name, Quan Yin, Kannon). She is the bodhisattva of compassion. To delve into the details of what a bodhisattva is would take a while, and is out of the scope of this particular post (some other time, perhaps), but imagine a kind of goddess, or an enlightened being who could be hanging out (metaphorically) having fun in nirvana, but decides to keep slogging it out with us here.
You might ask, why did I get a tatoo of Kwan Yin on my arm? I got it because it is meant to be a constant reminder to me about what is the central and most important thing in my life – to lead a compassionate life. Part of that process is to continually learn, re-learn, explore and delve into what compassion is, what it means to me, and what it has meant in different traditions.
If you know me, or are getting to know me from these blogs, you’ve found that the two primary spiritual traditions that influence my life are Buddhism and Christianity. I thought I’d spend some time exploring what I’ve been learning about compassion in those two traditions, and do some comparison of them.
Compassion is one of the “Four Boundless Abodes” of Buddhist teaching. These include lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In Buddhism, compassion is the desire to remove suffering, and give happiness. The pali word, Karuna, which is translated to compassion in English, is actually a word that is often used as a concept of love.
To have compassion, to live compassionately, is an important part of Buddhist practice. There are 5 basic precepts in Buddhism (many traditions have 8 or 10, but there are 5 that all have in common). These are a moral code for Buddhists. They are refraining from killing (which, to many Buddhists, means being a vegetarian). Refraining from taking what is not freely offered (stealing). Refraining from sexual misconduct. Refraining from speaking falsely. Refraining from intoxicants. Four of the five can certainly be seen as fairly natural outgrowths of compassion.
In English, the origin of the word compassion is the prefix com-, which means ‘with’, and the suffix -passion which in Latin means “to feel”. So compassion can be also expressed in the phrase “to feel with.” And this is pretty deep, this thing about “feeling with” someone else. It gets more interesting. In the Hebrew bible, the word that is usually translated as compassion is the plural of a noun that means “womb.” So it’s the way a woman feels about her own child, in a sense. That’s pretty deep.
Luke 6:36 says “Be merciful, as your Father is merciful”. The Hebrew word for compassion are also translated as merciful. I don’t like the word mercy (although Kwan Yin is also called the goddess of mercy). One might (and Marcus Borg does) use the translation “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” There is abundant tradition in both Jewish and Christian scripture of God as the God of compassion and love. So to be compassionate as God is, is to live compassion.
I also think of the saying “walk a mile in my shoes.” I find that the biggest barrier to compassion is to keep wearing our own shoes – keep seeing things through our own eyes. It’s SO human – we expect everyone to be like us, at some level, and when they don’t behave like we do, or don’t think like we do, it’s hard to have compassion – hard to feel with them.
Like a lot of things it’s a practice. And practice implies making mistakes. And the more we learn to be compassionate with ourselves with our own mistakes, the easier it is to be compassionate with someone else. I know, it sounds like I just contradicted myself – it’s one of those interesting paradoxes. At the same time as we need to “feel with” others, and walk in their shoes, we do need to feel deep compassion for ourselves, as well. That’s sometimes even harder.
(Thanks to Marcus Borg’s book “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” for some of the info on the Christian perspectives)
“Great Faith, Great Doubt, Great Determination” 06/20/2005
At the UU Buddhist Fellowship Convocation this spring, John Daido Loori (the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery) gave a talk about Zen practice. In that talk, he spoke of the tripod of great faith, great doubt, and great determination as a means to awakening. I recently found a short piece he wrote on that on Beliefnet.
I’d like to suggest that this is an important tripod of any genuine spiritual journey/practice. Great Faith, in his view is “boundless faith in oneself and in the ability to realize oneself and make oneself free.” I think that’s faith in ourselves, and our strength to persevere. Faith in our hearts, our hearts knowledge. For some, it includes great faith in God(dess)/Creator/Great Spirit of Being.
Great doubt, in his view are questions like “Who am I? What is life? What is truth? What is God? What is reality?” We need to ask these questions, and others, of ourselves, of God, and of the world around us, to help us see clearly, make decisions clearly, and live humbly.
Great determination he says is the “the determination of ‘Seven times knocked down, eight times up.'” This is also essential. It’s so easy to give up sometimes, to think that we’ll never find our path, never find clarity, or the peace we seek. Sometimes it’s one step in front of the other. E.L. Doctorow once said of creativity “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I can certainly describe a lot of things in my life that way, and my spiritual journey is certainly one of them.
These three, great faith, great doubt, and great determination, are essential, together, and work together to bring us peace, equanimity, bring us closer to the Ultimate Reality, and to wake us up, no matter what our faith tradition is. And it’s easy to see that they really are a tripod – our journey and practice are unstable, and prone to tip over if one of these is missing. And reminding myself of these three often, helps me keep going, even in times of stress, pain and fear.
What I want, or what I need? 06/24/2005
I don’t normally pay attention to fortune cookies. At most, they are something to laugh about with friends around the table. Usually, they are ridiculously trite, or completely not applicable (“Your children will bring you joy.”) Every once in a long while, I get one that seems spot-on at the time. But I’ve never gotten one that was quite so thought provoking as the one I got today, with my favorite (not even Chinese) meal: Unagi-don.
“God will give you everything that you want.”
Now, interestingly enough, I opened this fortune cookie right after I said to myself “if I ever have a meal I know to be my last, I think I’d want to make it Unagi-don.”
I often have thought about ‘wants’ versus ‘needs.’ I have consciously, over the past few years, tried to be much more conscious about how I use those words. When I think “I need a 60 GB iPod Photo,” I’m careful to consciously remember that the word I should use is want. It’s a change – I used to need everything. Now I am aware that I need approximately 1500 calories a day, a quart or so of water, and a warm place to sleep at night. I’d even say I need clothes, and shoes (although I don’t need those nice new Keen sandals I see in the store window.) I have a (relatively minor) chronic illness, and I need certain prescriptions each day. I need love, friendship and companionship. I need ways to occupy and challenge my mind.
The list of needs is actually, rather small, when you lay it out. But, of course my wants could be endless.
I don’t know if you’ve heard the term ‘hungry ghost.’ It’s a fairly widespread cultural idea – although it varies from place to place – but the basic idea is of a spirit that is unsatisfiable – always hungry, always yearning, looking for more. Many people have described our culture – the culture where you aren’t cool without eating the right things, wearing the right clothes, driving the right car – and there is always something more to buy or experience, but we can never be satisfied (and never should – otherwise our economy would collapse,) as a hungry ghost culture.
So to get the fortune “God will give you everything you want” reminded me of the increasingly capitalistic and crass nature of Christian fundamentalism (“God wants you to be rich,”) and the way we sometimes justify our hungry ghost culture.
But you know, if one is a follower of the examples of Jesus, it ain’t so. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23) for example. In the gospels, it’s pretty clear what the point of view is. One can’t serve money and God, and being rich makes it harder to be close to God. Jesus invited his followers to give up material goods.
I actually don’t want God to give me everything I want. I have, as you might imagine, quite a hard time with the idea of an intercessional God. But even if I were to accept that notion, I wouldn’t want this fortune. Because I’m human, and weak, getting all of my wants would actually lead me off the path I want to walk, lead me further away from the God I’m seeking. I don’t want this from God (or anyone.)
This is not to say that I’m ready to be an ascetic. Buddha showed the wisdom of what he called the “middle way.” We don’t need to be ascetics, but excess keeps us asleep. The middle way is the path to enlightenment. And it’s a constant balance – watching ourselves, our reactions to our desires. Because we’re human, it’s not possible to be perfect. But it’s possible to be conscious and aware, and that’s all I’m after.
Some short notes 07/16/2005
I know I usually use this blog for longer pieces. I’m working (in my head) on a peice about evil, but I think that will take me a while to gestate. In the mean time, I have some small things to share.
First, if you don’t read Dylan’s Lectionary Blog, please do. She’s got a really nice approach to things, and I like her most recent post a lot (she’s talking about things very much on my mind these days). I’ve not been much of a bible reader until recently, and it’s nice to read interesting approaches to different passages.
I’ve been reading a bit of anthropology lately, specifically about rites of passage, and how the ‘liminal’ period – which is when you are “betwixt and between” can be really special, and it’s way, holy. As you might imagine, I’m thinking a lot about what it means to be “betwixt and between” since I’m in limbo – finished with full time work, not yet in the classroom. It’s been leaving me feeling at loose ends, and this has been helping me just sit with that liminal state.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about God. I haven’t blogged a lot on this topic, mostly because it’s so unformed in my mind and heart. But it seems a part and parcel of my process these days. Maybe it will get concrete enough to blog about.
Evil and violence 07/17/2005
I’ve been thinking a lot about evil. In a conversation with a friend of mine, we agreed that in the grand scheme of things, the existence of evil is somewhat of a sticky wicket.
Fundamentalists have an easy time with evil. I remember a sermon once, when I was attending a Nazarene church 25 years ago or so. I remember clearly how the pastor was defining the devil. The Devil was evil, vil[e] and il[l]. It was drilled into me that the source of evil was the devil, and that people who were evil followed the devil. Evil behavior was a direct result of human beings listening to the devil instead of listening to God. God was good, and just, and separate from evil. (There is still a sticky wicket, though, why did the devil fall, if angels were God’s perfect creation? Why did God allow it?) I won’t talk here about the theology of evil, which I’m beginning to think a lot about, but I have so much more to learn before those ideas become more clear, so it will wait for while. But I have an increasingly well developed notion of why people do evil, and how we can address it.
First off, I’d better define evil, before I get into too much trouble. I’m not talking about what many people (er, fundamentalists, say) define as evil. I’m not talking about anything that consenting adults do. I’m not talking about cursing, or addiction, or disobeying your parents. This is my definition: evil is the small scale or large scale intentional infliction of pain on other human beings. The reasons for the intention may differ, but the intention is what’s important.
I said in a post last week, that was in response to the London Bombings, that we can’t ever stop terrorism (a definite evil) without understanding and addressing the suffering of the terrorists. Evil is, I believe, a result of suffering of some sort or another – more clearly, suffering that festers.
I think I need to be more clear. What I’m really talking about is pain, and the suffering that results from pain. We all suffer – it’s a normal part of life. So much so, that the Buddha taught that “Life is Suffering.” The Buddha talked about the origin of suffering being grasping/attachment, aversion and delusion. But that’s not the origin of pain. The origin of pain is other human actions and behaviors. Sometimes, the origin of suffering that leads to evil is delusion – delusion about who we are, what’s important in life, the value of other people.
Some children who are abused grow up to be abusers. Some communities and cultures that are persecuted and oppressed go on to persecute and oppress. The suffering that results from the infliction of pain: insult, violence, oppression, abuse, and, basically, evil behavior, is, in my opinion, the origin of further painful behavior – it is the origin of evil.
In Matthew (5:38-40) Jesus talked about not resisting an evildoer. If struck on the cheek, offer the other one, too. The fourth part of the Buddhist Eightfold path to enlightenment is “Right Action” – including nonharming. Both of these traditions offer poigniant lessons about the cycle of violence. The only way to stop the cycle of violence is to not be violent. That is the only way to stop evil.
This works in microcosm and macrocosm, in small ways and big ways. When people who are suffering act out of that suffering to cause more pain, it continues the cycle. A critical, harsh comment to a partner can result in further pain and harm, as the partner responds to that with a biting comment of her own. As many know, if those hurts continue to fester, a continued cycle of anger can ruin a relationship. The United States, in response to the September 11 attacks, invaded Afghanistan, and more people became angry at the US. We perpetuated the cycle of violence.
Luckily, we have some good examples to go by. Gandi and others got the British out of India by non-violent means. Mandela and others ended the evil of apartheid by non-violent means. The civil rights movement in the US responded to evil by non-violence, and that made all the difference. We know how to do it, we can do it.
If we continue to respond to evil with our own brand of evil, the evil will never stop. We have to find a way to do what Jesus suggested – offer the other cheek. Not that this is simple – it’s hard work, and it means a level of self-examination of our society that we are likely unwilling to do. But if we don’t, if we continue to perpetuate the cycle of violence, we will be hearing about, and dealing with, suicide bombings for years and years to come.
Gains and Losses 07/23/2005
When I was younger, I thought of transitions (moving to a new place, getting a new job,) especially if it was a transition I instigated, as only a gain. I was going somewhere new, doing something new and exciting and meeting new people. I don’t think I understood the loss part of it until relatively recently.
When I moved from Colorado to New England 16 years ago, I did feel the loss of a time in my life acutely, although I don’t think I really understood everything involved in that loss. And I think I was paying far more attention to the gain of the start of a new profession, a new place to live. It’s been in retrospect that I’ve fully engaged with what it was I lost, and left behind.
Loss is a normal part of life. We lose people and things all the time. Sometimes we don’t know it until it’s right in our face. We take someone, or something for granted, and then are shocked when we find them gone. Last weekend, I had a very specific urge to go to a specific restaurant for a big breakfast (something I do about once every few months.) I bought my New York Times, walked down to the restaurant … and it was closed. Not only closed that day, but forever gone. The owner had decided to close it, for reasons that were undefined.
Of course, the loss of an occasionally visited restaurant is a lot less keen than the loss of someone’s everyday loving presence. But the truth is, losses of those types, and every type in between, are what we can be sure of in our lives. And what I’m learning about loss right now, as I do a self-instigated transition to the other coast, and into another life, is that if I focus more on the gain – what that person or thing brought to my life, how they or it made my life more full, and not the loss, my feeling of absence, of missing them, I can move forward from the loss, still holding the joy of the gain in my heart.
And for me, loss has become a reminder to stay as much as possible in the present moment, because it will be lost too. Today is one of those amazingly wonderful summer days, crisp and clean, not too hot, fresh breeze blowing. The leaves are still in their most verdant green shade, the sun still warm on my face, the birds singing mightily, the insects humming. It’s a great moment to cherish, because it will be gone with the sun.
I used to be really good at prayer. When I was a fundamentalist, I would ask God for all sorts of things. Help for me (and, of course, my soul), help for others (their souls too), help for the world. When I tossed God out the window with fundamentalism, prayer went out too.
As a part of my Buddhist meditation practice over the years, I learned about Metta (lovingkindness) practice – the wishing of happiness, peace, well being for myself and others. I really liked Metta practice when I first learned about it – and still like it today. I liked it because I needed a way to wish myself happiness, and I liked wishing others the same. It seemed to open my heart in a way that other kinds of practice did not. I also learned about Karuna, or Compassion practice – the wishing for the cessation of suffering.
I have very recently discovered why I really take to these practices – they are a lot like prayer. And it’s clear to me that I’ve felt the lack of prayer in my spiritual life over the years, one I’d like to address somehow.
When I did a Christian/Ecumenical retreat in June, I was introduced to the wide variety of prayer that people have written about and taught about. Centering prayer is a lot like meditation, but intercessional prayer is a very hard one for me. Like, who am I asking for what, exactly? Prayers of thanksgiving are easier – I have found myself often, when I take the moment, to think about how a meal arrived at my plate, and thank all of the people who made it arrive there, and the creator for the bounty itself.
Lighting the candles during Joys and Concerns, a ritual many UU congregations include in their Sunday services can sometimes feel like prayer – but a prayer shared with others, where most of the time, prayers are said alone.
My understanding of prayer is changing and developing as time goes on, and I’m looking forward to seeing what I learn about it in seminary.
Not Knowing 09/07/2005
Not knowing is an uncomfortable state. There are all sorts of not knowing. There’s the small kinds of not knowing. Not knowing what you’ll feel like when you wake up tomorrow morning. Not knowing what’s for breakfast. Not knowing what the weather will be like in 4 hours or 4 days.
Then, there’s the medium kinds of not knowing (although these feel big to us, when we are in them). Not knowing what your doctor will say after a test. Not knowing whether your family member is OK. Not knowing what you are going to do with the rest of your life.
Then, there are the really big kinds of not knowing. Not knowing about God, not knowing what will happen when you die, not knowing, really, why the heck you’re here in the first place. Not knowing why bad things happen.
Not knowing goes against every grain in our being – we seem to need to know. We struggle against this constantly. But the state of not knowing is holy. Until we are comfortable sitting with that not knowing, until we fully accept that not knowing, we can’t fully accept our lives, as they are at this moment.
And it is in the moment, and only the present moment, when we know. That’s when we can listen to the wisdom of our hearts.
What’s really important 09/14/2005
I am not one to engage in the rhetoric of fire and brimstone, or judgement by God. From my perspective, that language in the bible is a result not of listening to Sophia, wisdom, but listening to the human need for revenge and condemnation.
But I was reading a particular passage this week, and something struck me. The passage is Matthew 25:31-46. The context of this passage is Jesus telling people a lot about what the “kindgom of heaven” is in parables. I have a post about the kindom of heaven (eschaton) brewing, but what’s important about phrases like the “kingdom of heaven” or about “eternal life” is that this is a signal – this is when Jesus is supposed to be talking about the real deal – what it really means to live a life by his example.
So the passage is talking about separation of the sheep and goats – putting some people on his right hand, and some on his left. The ones on his right hand get eternal life, the ones on his left get eternal punishment. And what was it, exactly, that made the big difference? Was it belief? No. Was it following a specific set of rules? Nope. Was it evangelizing? No. Was it establishing a theocracy? Nope. Was it praying for openings on the Supreme Court? Absolutely not.
So what was it? Well, it’s amazingly simple. “I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you visited me…. Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these … you did it to me.”
This is kinda clear, now isn’t it?
Ignatius of Loyola 09/21/2005
Ignatius of Loyola was born in the 15th Century, and like most people in his time, he had concepts and ideas that were quite different than ours, certainly those of us that veer toward, or fully embrace, liberal religion. The order he founded, the Society of Jesus, also called the Jesuits, is a strong force in Catholicism today. And, his wisdom, primarily in the form of the “Spiritual Exercises” has survived to this day, and is used quite often. I took a very abbreviated version of the spiritual exercises this summer, and I hope to, at some point, take the full version. The spiritual exercises are a contemplative practice, aimed toward discernment – making good decisions, or, for some, decisions that are in agreement with God’s will for ones life.
There were two things that struck me in reading Ignatius’ writing. The first, is text in the first part of the Spiritual Exercises. For him, in order to serve God,
“… I must make myself indifferent to all created things…” (paragraph 23)
This is very much like the well known Chinese Zen saying “The way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.” He actually talks in more depth about this “indifference” and it is not at all far from the Buddhist notion of not being attached – not craving, or aversion to things – as a skillful means to enlightenment.
The second thing that struck me is a story he told in a letter he wrote to a woman who was struggling, it seems, with how she was perceived by others. The letter outlines an interesting story of a woman who is so struck by the demeanor of a group of Franciscan friars, and so wanted to serve God, that she pretends to be a man, and joins the order. Now I was completely sure what was coming next. But, I was surprised. The story goes on to tell how a woman from the community becomes enamored of this friar, and the friar rebuffed her advances. The woman became enraged, and wanted to get back at the friar, and claimed that she’d gotten pregnant by the friar (of course, an impossibility). The friar said nothing (which, of course, you can imagine why.) The friar continued to make “no self-defense to anyone, but within [her] soul conversed with [her] Creator and Lord, since [s]he was being given an opportunity for such great merit in the eyes of [her] Divine Majesty.” She was thrown in jail. She was eventually released, I guess on good behavior, and lived a long time.
Many years later, of course, the friar died, and when they determined that the friar had been a woman, they realized how she “had been the victim of a terrible calumny. Amazed, the all the friars had praise for [her] innocence and holiness that exceeded their curses against [her] wickedness.” And it seems that friar is remembered well.
That story changed my view of Ignatius. For him, the friar’s behavior of accepting false witness without defense, and “conversing” with God, was much more important than the fact that she had pretended to be a man. It became much more clear to me what ‘sin’ was to him – and it had more to do with ones behavior and relationship to God, than with moral propriety, etc.
(Quotes from Ignatius’ letter: To Isabel Roser, Consolation, the Bearing of Insults, the Third Way of Being Humble I:83-89 – the letter is worth a read in it’s entirety.)
What’s it good for? 10/03/2005
The Bible, that is. I’ve asked (and answered) this question in at least four different ways in my life. The first way was what I learned as a Presbyterian – it’s a great book, with great stories, and pretty much is the truth. The second way, the one I had as a fundamentalist, was basically, that the bible was the inerrant word of God (well, I didn’t really believe that, but I had to say it. I don’t exactly remember what I thought about it, but it had to be kinda close to way #1 or way #2.) The third way, was, basically that it’s a sexist book written a long time ago by a bunch of men, and has been used as a force for oppression, and justification for evil for hundreds of years.
So now what? It’s hard to imagine moving from way #3, to somewhere else. The fourth way is being constructed as we speak, so it’s hard to be clear about it. And, I guess, I really should only be talking about the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, since that’s what I’m studying now. But here are the elements:
It has some darned good stories. I’m learning from my bible class that, based on archeological evidence, what are called “extra-biblical” texts, and the content of the old testament itself, that, for the most part, the early stuff in the old testament is legend, and the later stuff is historical fiction. But that legend and historical fiction have multiple purposes. Some are to tell us about their understanding of God (which, of course, changes.) Sometimes, it is to lay down the law, and to provide object lessons. In some cases, there are very particular object lessons (obey Torah, prosper and be victorious, disobey Torah, be conquered and die.) But some of the stories lay really important groundwork for what comes later (like the vision of a messianic house of David in Samuel and Kings lays the groundwork for the ways in which Jesus was looked at later.)
Understanding context is everything. Understanding the context of when a part of the bible was written, is a very important part of understanding the text. And it’s a lot easier to understand what they were trying to get at with a story, if you understand the context of the time. It’s a lot easier to forgive a story about wholesale slaughter, when you know that the writers had just been forcibly removed from their homes and decimated.
There is real wisdom. I’m in a moment of really loving the Psalms. The psalms were always my favorite old testament book, and I’m sure they are favorites of many. It’s kinda easy to love the psalms. The psalms are an expression of a personal connection to the divine, and all of the things that means. The psalms seem, to me, to hold timeless wisdom and expression of the mysteries of the world, of God, and of being human.
I was at a talk, and someone said that they look at the bible as a member of their congregation, that it speaks, and is spoken to, and is not elevated. I kinda liked that image. We have to remember that the bible was written a long time ago, by multiple authors, is not in any way historically accurate, but has in it knowledge, wisdom, and expressions of ultimate reality that is worth studying, as do the holy books of many traditions.
No, not me! 10/16/2005
Three things have happened to me in the past few days which have made me think, and have come together in sort of a holy trifecta. First, in my big bible class (that I’m supposed to be studying for an exam in) we just covered three major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. These three (actually, there were multiple authors of Isaiah) folks were pretty interesting in what they had to say, and how much they made the powers that be uncomfortable.
I went to an ordination yesterday, for a fellow PSR student that I’ve just been beginning to get to know, Roland Stringfellow. He was ordained in the MCC denomination, and will become interim minister of MCC Sacremento. Seeing that beautiful ordination ceremony, and taking in what ordination really means was pretty powerful. Interestingly enough, the sermon was on Jeremiah. I think there was a message there.
The third thing is that I’ve gotten myself into another little email tussle, over issues related to the process of fellowship in the UUA. I thought about why I got into the tussle in the first place (issues of economic justice, mostly, followed by concern for the future of this particular sub-organization of the UUA, and a little bit about making some people’s lives a little easier.) I seem to constantly get myself into these sorts of things – whether in email, or in real life. It is my tendency to challenge authority, the status quo, to tell people plainly why I think something is wrong. And, as per usual, people get defensive.
And here I was, thinking somehow, that my ministry was going to be of service to people in need, to celebrate ritual, build organizations, help people find meaning in their lives. And then I realized that I forgot about my prophetic voice. I can no more ignore it, than, say, ignore that I’m a woman. And that voice sometimes makes people uncomfortable – pushes them out of their comfort zones. Deep down, a part of me doesn’t want it anymore.
Isaiah seemed happy to say “here I am, send me.” Right now, I feel like saying “No, not me!” Work like this is just hard. It’s hard to challenge people’s assumptions. It’s hard to challenge the status quo, when challenging the status quo might mean that your own status is at risk. But, in the end, it’s work we all have to do. We live in a time where a lot of things aren’t right, where we can’t just sit idly by when we need to speak.
And I also know that I have to be true to myself – we all have to be true to ourselves, and our own truths. And somehow, have the faith that we’re doing the right thing.
Mary and Martha, Contemplation and Action 11/01/2005
I’ve been thinking a lot about contemplation, as well as action. I guess taking a course called “Christian Contemplation and Action” helps. Contemplation and action have been a constant thread throughout my life.
There is a great story in the bible, in Luke 10:38-42, which is a familiar story. It is a story of two sisters, Mary and Martha. Jesus is visiting their house, and Martha is busy with cooking, and general hospitality. You know how busy that can make you, especially if your guest is someone important. Her sister Mary, on the other hand, is content just to hang out and listen to Jesus, not helping Martha at all.
The truth is, that most of us are both Mary and Martha. We’re Martha, the busy one, the one out there, doing work, doing activism, perhaps, on the move. We’re also, somewhere deep inside maybe, Mary, the quiet one, the one more interested in inner truth, contemplation, meditation, a relationship with the Divine. We might be one or the other more in different phases of our lives. I’m doing a lot of being Mary right now, which is feeling exactly right. Some people are miraculously able to balance those two at once, and do them both well – a friend of mine who is a dharma teacher and an activist, seems to be able to do this. We often tend to ignore one over the other. I think for most of us, Mary gets short shrift.
I’ve written about the two commandments in Matthew. In a sense, Mary is loving God and Martha is loving neighbor. We need both. The question is how do we make room for both, and pay attention to both in our lives. It’s so easy to be Martha – keep ourselves busy with the needs of the day, the news, others around us. We need time to be Mary, to just sit, and be with God.
Psalm of Lament 11/14/2005
There are some things you gotta love about seminary. They make you do things you’d never, ever think of yourself, things that are, in fact, mostly pretty useful.
I’m taking a course called “Spiritual Disciplines for Christian Communities,” and one of the requirements of the course is to write a psalm of lament. I’ve always been a fan of the Psalms – when I was young, when I was a fundamentalist, and even after I left. For me now, Psalms are comforting and they remind me of what’s important. I still have a hard time with some of them. The smiting of enemies, and that sort of thing is a bit of a challenge, but for the most part, I love reading them over and over. Psalms of lament, which, actually, make up 1/3 of the Psalms, have a particular form, and a particular kind of resolution. My assignment was to write one. So here it is, my Psalm of lament. I hope it speaks to you, or at least you enjoy it slightly. For those of you that know St. John of the Cross, there is a bit of a reference to the “dark night of the soul” here.
A Candle Flame
O Holy One,
Mother of all,
hear my prayer!
My heart is lost in confusion, in a
night so dark, my soul stumbles across the landscape
of my life.
Give me, o God, a light,
even just a candle flame, so perhaps
I can dimly see the path I must take.
My own fear, judgments and pain
are my enemies, they work against me constantly.
God, help me find a way to overcome them,
so I might serve you.
Am I not, o Holy One,
dedicated to Your service?
Am I not bound
to use my eyes, hands, mouth for You
in this world?
Mother, I bask in the warmth of your love,
I am overwhelmed by the gifts I have been given.
Glory be to God! God’s steadfast love is everlasting!
The Human Condition 11/28/2005
If you’ve never heard of Hadewijch, that’s completely understandable. She was, until fairly recently, a completely unheard of 13th century mystic, who was a Flemish Beguine, a laywoman. She is part of the tradition of Love Mysticism (link worth a read) that started in the 12th century.
Hadewijch, like many of the medieval mystics I’ve been reading lately, has a fairly unconventional (and, to my mind, probably heretical to the church at the time) theology and perspective. It’s quite interesting how they managed to survive the Inquisition – which some of them actually became a target of.
Anyway, Hadewijch’s perspective, as I’m beginning to understand it, seems to be an expression of the basic human condition. She thought that living nobly, and doing good without expectations of any type of reward, is the best way to live.
Do good under all circumstances, but with no care for any profit, or any blessedness, or any damnation, or any salvation, or any martyrdom; but all you do or omit should be for the honor of Love.
For her, Love (she capitalizes it) is the love of God. This is pretty radical for her time – do all for the honor of Love, without even caring about salvation!
She also feels often bereft of the presence of Love (God). She feels sometimes condemned by God because she doesn’t feel God’s presence. She thinks of Love as a trickster, because she (Hadewijch uses the feminine pronoun when talking about Love) seems capricous in her ways.
This is where it feels like Hadewijch is hitting the crux of the matter for us: we human beings really don’t have a clue do we? God isn’t talking in burning bushes, or dropping tablets down, or shouting from heaven, is God? Some people feel real certainty in their beliefs. But ultimately, really, we have no idea, and we maybe hope we’ll know for sure when we finally leave this place. It’s frustrating! Why is it that sometimes we might feel the presence of what we call God, and sometimes we don’t? Some people never do.
So here we are, having to figure out how to live a life that is good, a life of meaning, and we don’t get to expect anything! That doesn’t seem fair, does it?
But Hadewijch provides some hope, because, after all Love is … love.
Oh, Love is ever new,
And she revives every day!
Those who renew themselves she causes to be born again
To continual acts of goodness.
How, alas, can anyone
Remain old, fainthearted at Love’s presence?
he is denied the newness
That lies in new service of Love,
In the nature of the love of new lovers.
This life seems to provide us with few guarantees. Buddists express the need to understand that things are impermanent. But there is one constant – and that is love, however you want to express it – the love of God, the love we have for each other, and for the planet. And it is living, in Hadewijch’s words “for the honor of Love.” that is it’s own reward.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about paradox. One of the things that drew me to Buddhism is the inherent paradoxes that I see in that tradition. For example, the Dhammapada says:”Rely on nothing until you want nothing.” How can you really rely on nothing? How can you want nothing? It is, really, a thought provoking paradox.
One of the central aspects of Zen Buddhist practice (which I only have a fleeting familiarity with) is Koan practice. Koan’s, seem to me, to be articulations of paradoxes, that we are invited to explore. The classic Koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a great example.
But what’s also true is that the central truths of Christianity are paradoxes. But the paradoxical nature of them has gotten lost – it seems that we choose to decide on what the truth should be, instead of embracing the paradox.
Take the paradox that Jesus was fully human and fully God. What does that mean, exactly? For most people, in the end, this isn’t really a paradox. For some, Jesus is God, the second person of the Trinity (which is, of course another paradox) and that’s really it. The human part of the paradox is lost. Remember, it says that Jesus was fully human – how is it possible for Jesus to be God, and to be fully human? For others (a view I have tended to have,) Jesus was a historical figure, a man, a very enlightened and gifted man. So how is Jesus fully God? So we’ve chosen one, or the other, he’s God, or he was human.
I’m wondering now whether we have to explain it at all, to “choose sides” as it were. Maybe it’s a Christian koan. Maybe the truth is actually in the mystery, in the unexplainable-ness of it.
Listening and the Work of the Spirit 02/11/2006
A number of things have happened to me in the last week or so, that have made me think a lot about how we talk to one another. We all come to our perspectives from family history, personal experience, cultural history, education, and religious or spiritual perspective. It is extremely difficult for us to find ways to, as they say, “walk a mile” in each other’s shoes, particularly when someone is from a different class, racial/ethnic group, religion or country. It takes a lot of work to be able to understand our “social location” and be able to realize how that affects everything about how we think and approach issues.
In one of my classes this semester, we are learning about issues of inclusive worship – how to think about the ways in which we arrange the varied parts of church life and community so that people can feel included, whether it be issues of gender, sexuality, ability, race, language or culture. It became clear to me immediately that it is impossible to manage this. It is impossible to figure out all of the ways to arrange a community of faith so that no one ever gets offended or insulted, and absolutely everyone feels welcome at every moment. It is just not possible.
So what is the answer, then? It’s my increasing perspective, that the answer is two fold. First, is the intention with which we enter into this process. The intention of listening deeply to other perspectives, even those we might not understand. Going out of our way to find out how one group or another feels about worship, or other aspects of the community of faith. Basically, making sure that people really feel heard.
Thich Nhat Hanh said, in his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, “In a true dialogue, both sides are willing to change. We have to appreciate that truth can be received from outside of – not only within – our own group.”
What’s the second part of this answer? That’s the one that’s intangable. It’s that we need to provide room for that inneffable thing that binds us together (and has many names) to work in us, to provide us with grace to move forward with deeply positive intentions. For communities of faith that share the same basic theology, it makes it a bit easier – we can draw on those things that bind us together as a community.
But I do think this is as true of trying to work to provide an inclusive community of faith, as it is of trying to figure out how to live together in any kind of community, whether it be small, or the whole world.
It’s time to stop and listen. Not react, not decide before we’ve heard anything that we’re right, not close ourselves from other points of view. Not act from fear, or anger, or hatred. Just stop and listen, and be willing to be changed. And let the Spirit work in us.
Letter to God 02/22/2006
Here I am, God. I sit, every morning, way before my body has any interest in being awake, looking for your presence. I sit every evening, in silence, sometimes alone, sometimes with partners in the crime of contemplation, sometimes singing your praises, or reading what others have said about you. I wait. I wonder. I remember that fleeting moment when my mind was silent, and I felt your hands on my temples. The loving touch of my God.
If you are in ayin, where are you? Here I am, stuck in yesh, stuck, really stuck. Somehow I think that if I sit long enough, or if I chant long enough, or read long enough, that I’ll find you. My mind says, constantly, that I can’t ever find you. But I want to taste the “whole wheat of” your spirit “before it is ground by the millstones” of my reasoning mind.
My reasoning mind tells me that you’re not really there. I can’t see you, I can’t touch you, I am separate, my own contained self in my own little body, my own little ego. But when I taste the whole wheat, I know that I am one with everything that is. There is no me, there, there is no self. I thought Buddha said that one, too.
So what story will be told about me, God? What will follow the “Hayo hayah pa’am”, what will be told about my struggles in finding you? Will it end well? It is, of course, your fault that I’m here. You called me. You seemed to have this brilliant idea that I have some greater purpose, some greater pedagogy to teach. But I haven’t had my Mount Sinai yet, God. I’m still waiting.
And, so, I’ll keep sitting. I’ll keep reading, keep praying, keep chanting, keep looking for the ocean of peace that’s right next to me, but beyond my sight. I’ll keep searching for the light of your spirit, in the darkness behind my eyelids. I’ll keep listening for your still, small voice in the cacophony of my busy mind. I know you are waiting.
Notes: “Hayo hayah pa’am” is the Hebrew equivalent to “Once upon a time…” Ayin and Yesh are concepts from Kabbalah – ayin being “nothing” – but the big nothing, that which is not yesh, or the material world. Also, the quote “I want to taste the whole wheat of spirit before it is ground by the millstones of reason” is from Abraham Heschel, in an article titled “The Mystical Experience in Judaism” for the book called “The Jews: Thier History, Culture and Religion.”
Is saying that there is God in the text an act of simple faith? What is it that I believe about the text? Somehow, God has breathed God’s light into the text – even with its human stamp. Maybe God is the warp to the human weft? God is the yeast to the human dough? In a reading of a line, or a verse, or a chapter I can hear God’s voice. I can hear the voice of some guy writing on his desk a long, long time ago. In a line, or verse, or chapter, I can hear my own voice, too.
The text is both life and death to me. It is life, because it provides me with understanding, a way to think about the world, a way into the mind and life of God that I can’t find anywhere else; it’s my anchor. It is death, because there are people who want to break me and snuff me out with the text. They want to decide what it is exactly I am supposed to believe, how it is exactly I am to be pious. What are the ways exactly that I am sinful, perhaps even evil.
I spent a lot of years adrift. There was no anchor to my life, no particular place to look to, no place to find God, hear God’s voice. I looked all over. I sat for days on end, sometimes at home, sometimes somewhere with a big Buddha statue. I listened to different teachers speak. I read other kinds of text. Except for a few concepts I managed to grapple with while I sat, most of that text ended up being just a mish mash of strange words in my mind that I could make no sense of. I couldn’t hang on to it, and I drifted on the currents of my own wandering, even though I know God was with me. I realized that I missed that anchor, that’s why I went back. But it wasn’t until the book was light enough to carry, and would not drag me down into the depths of the ocean of other’s judgment. Then I could pick it up, and it would hold me fast.
Note: This post, and the one before it, are meditations that arise from content in my Jewish Mysticism class.
Shekinah, my God 03/13/2006
The reflexive use of male pronouns for God has always made me uneasy. When I hear it now, I sometimes even cringe. It feels like a constant reminder: “yes, God is male, so men are better than women.” In truth, the idea of a male God has always troubled me, even as a child. When I left the church, it was easy to say “those people with a male God.” It has been my wholehearted return to the faith of my birth that has allowed me to begin to explore what I’ve always known in my heart: God is as much female as God is male, and God speaks to me most often with Her voice.
It is true, that Christians have, over a long time, deeply revered Mary (Roman Catholics, really. We Protestants pretty much ignore her, except around December.) One of my favorite prayers is the “Ave, Regina caelorum,” a lenten prayer to Mary, that is in the Benedictine breviary that I often use (I am a closet Benedictine.) It says “Hail Mary, Queen of Heaven, Queen of all the saints and angels. Root of Jesse, heaven’s portal. Source of all light in the world.” Kinda sounds like she’s God, doesn’t it?
In the ever fascinating world of Kabbalah, the sefirotic system is yet another avenue, path, lens, or texture for me to understand God. I never get tired of new ways to look at God, to learn about God, to think about God, or to approach God. And one of the most attractive parts of the ten sefirot to me is that there is the inherent understanding that God is both male and female. It seems like I can learn from each sefirah, each one has a voice, a character, a flavor, a feeling. Each sefirah can speak to me in God’s voice, whether it be Chesed or Shekinah, or any other, each in a disctinctive voice, perhaps, but all God’s one voice.
Note: Shekhinah is the 10th sefirah, God’s Feminine Presence. Chesed, the 5th sefirah, or Love.
I was watching a pigeon outside of my window one day. It seemed so serene, as it watched me watch it. Its eyes seemed a pool of wisdom, and reflected my face. I remembered that Jesus had said “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet [God] feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? “(Matt. 6:26) I remembered that doves are white pigeons. I see them now and again, but not often. It was once said of Jesus “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” (Luke 3:22) The Holy Spirit was a bird, flying above Jesus. The Holy Spirit is kind of a mystery to me. Is the idea that the Holy Spirit is like a dove mean that it is pure? What about love? “my love, my dove, my perfect one” (Song 6:9) Maybe the Holy Spirit is perfect love, perfection in love. Love is deep, like the deep eyes of the pigeon outside of my window. “If you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” (Gal 6:8) Pigeons don’t sow or reap, but it seems, somehow, that I must. But I shouldn’t worry about it, because Jesus said, “therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.” (Matt. 6:25)
Note: this was a first attempt at New Testament midrash. In a note to the teacher, I’d asked whether Christians can do midrash. He answered “Sure, they can, but will others appreciate it?”
Encounter with God 04/10/2006
It seems, I can spend days and days, weeks and weeks, with only a hint of God, now and again. And those hints are always fleeting: the delicate sounds of bubbling water, when my heart is open to the metaphor of my thirst for God being slaked. Or, I’ll see a hint in the amazing sound of a bird, returning from it’s winter vacation, when I’m connected to the beauty of creation. Sometimes I feel a hint in those quiet moments of sitting.
But the moments I encounter God in the way that I want to turn my face away, is when I am open, vulnerable, and I fully face my mortality. It’s not those moments when I think about death and am afraid, or those times when I can look my own death in the eye and not flinch. It’s those moments when I am faced with death and time, and the infinite abyss that is both. It’s that moment when I understand that my birth and my death are the same moment, when I see the gulf that is the universe outside of my birth and my death, see it’s hugeness, infinite space, unfathomable heights and depths, and know that I am both a part of it, it is a part of me, but yet somehow I am utterly apart from it.
God is in that awareness, God is in that infinite space and time, and God is in the unfathomable universe. And I can’t look.
Silence as Praise 04/27/2006
Maimonides said, “apprehension of [God] consists in the inability to attain the ultimate term in apprehending [God] … The most apt phrase concerning this subject is the dictum in the Psalms [65:2]: ‘To You silence in praise,’ which means: Silence with regard to You is praise.” I often can’t find words to describe God. Mostly, when I try to describe God, I am at a loss. My descriptions are completely inadequate. No matter how poetic, no matter how metaphorical, or etheric my language, my descriptions always fall far short. I don’t want to put God in a box. I don’t want to say that God is like this… or God is like that… Every time I listen to, or hear a description, “God is like…” I hear two things. Yes, God is like that. And no, God isn’t that, isn’t just that.
What makes things even harder, sometimes, is that I don’t even know how God wants us to describe God. And I can even continue to unpack that question. How does God want? What does God want? What is describing God? Does God even want us to try?
It seems, most times, that the less I can say about God, the better. And, somehow, the less I say, the more I understand. And finally, I am left with blessed, wonderful silence. The silence of the ultimate nothingness. The deepest, lightest, darkest, thickest, biggest silence there is.
Devekut: communion with God 05/15/2006
How we perceive God, who or what we think God is will determine how (or even if) we think we can achieve devekut. Is devekut like being in that place of ayin, that nothingness that is oneness, those fleeting moments when we perceive that we, and everything else, is really one? Or is devekut something different? Or is it many things – since many people conceive of many different ways to connect with God.
I am a panentheist, which, basically, means that I believe that God is both in everything, and everyone, but that all of that is not the sum total of what God is. For me, devekut, communion with God, is a combination of letting go of my illusions about reality, connecting with the God that is in me already, and, perhaps, being aware, in those fleeting moments of ayin, when the God that is in me, and the God that is everywhere else, is connected with the God that is, somehow, beyond our ability to grasp or understand.
And to what extent do we achieve devekut when we act with love and compassion in the world? There is an old Christian saying, that “God has no hands but ours, no feet but ours…” It makes me wonder whether we achieve devekut when we act in a way that is worthy of God – in a way that shows the compassion and love of God.
Perhaps devekut is both in those mystical moments of ecstatic union with the Divine, as well as those mundane moments when we act with love and compassion.
Note: This is the last of the reflections from my Jewish Mysticism Class, sadly.
In my Buddhist practice, what I have learned is the most important thing for me personally to focus on, is my awareness – my attention to the present moment. If I am aware in each moment, I am better able to see the thoughts that arise that can cause me to suffer – either create attachment to good things and feelings, aversion to bad things and feelings, or delusions about the way things are. As I have moved into a more intentional relationship with God, I have noticed that the moments in which I am most aware, most awake, are the moments where I am most likely to feel the expansiveness of God’s presence – the moments of understanding my relationship to God, and the way in which I and everything are the same thing.
Is this what the Kabbalists felt? That when they were aware, in each moment, of just that present moment, they were most open to the Divine? And was that why they felt that every thing they did could be done “for the sake of unifying the Holy One of Being with the presence of God?” Every mitzvah, a walk down the street, a smile for a child, baking bread, dancing, making love, it’s all a path to the Divine, if one is present for it. Perhaps it was their way of explaining their experience, like the experience of anyone else who is aware.
This week’s reflection consists of some thoughts that have occurred to me in reading the first few chapters of Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki’s God, Christ, Church (which is where the quotes are from.)
“There is an essential connectedness to all existence, a togetherness in a relationality that continuously moves beyond itself.”
We are all, of course connected to one another, and connected to everything on earth. The atoms that make up our bodies were once in the bodies of other humans, the bodies of animals and plants, the dirt under a particular tree, or a water molecule in a particular stream. Our atoms will, while we live, and after we die, be a part of other humans, other beings, in the ground, and in the water. Remember that idea of six degrees of separation – that each of us is only six steps from any other person? So we all are related closely to one another. And we all, of course, are connected by the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.
We are, in essence, defined by our relationships to existence, our relationships to past events, our relationships to ourselves and each other. Life is deeply relational, and relationality is essential to our living and being in the world.
So why is it that we often insist that we are independent beings, and, even, completely self-sufficient? I spent many years of my life thinking of myself as self-sufficient. Thinking that I could take care of all of my own needs, and that I didn’t need anyone else to help me out. Of course, there are all sorts of reasons that we have these ideas. Our society is very good at helping us forget about relationality, and about how much we depend on others for our lives. After all, we are supposed to be able to ‘pull ourselves up by our own boostraps’ right?
So the question is, is God part of that relationality? Process theology suggests that God might be called “Supremely Related One.” The relatedness of everything is, in that view, essential to God, and relationships in existence affect God. God is the holder of all possibilities of the world, all possibilities of relationships, and is the one who harmonizes possibilities – looks for the best that all can become. God holds all of our best possibilities, all of the best possibilities of our relations with each other, and with existence. And we, then, become co-creators of the future, and, when in harmony with God’s best possibilities, the co-creator of a future of love and compassion.
“We become God’s coworkers, and the future follows upon the choices of our responsive activity. God invites us into a future that we must create in our response to God. In our awareness of divine wisdom, we replace fear with trust, and move into the contingencies of time. And God waits.”
Supremely Related One,
We thank you for those around us we depend upon
Those that grow our food, and the food that we eat,
Those that build our houses, and the materials of the earth that keep us protected from the elements
Those friends and loved ones around us that we turn to for help and support
Help us to see Your continuing, ongoing creation,
You change as we change,
You know our best future, and hold it for us to see.
Help us to move closer to it, and find our way to realize it.