I DON’T NEED A GURU, BUT A GUIDE CAN BE GOOD

Several tattered and dog-eared books rest on my shelves that have been pored over time and again for their guidance, inspiration, and comfort.  Two in particular have been indispensable on my spiritual journey, The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila and Amazing Grace (A Vocabulary of Faith) by Kathleen Norris.  These authors, with their voices ancient and modern respectively, resonate with wisdom and perennially provide new insights into concepts which are meant to evolve as I am.

A sixteenth century Spanish mystic and prolific writer, St. Theresa of Avila continues to be one of my greatest spiritual mentors.  Hers is a soul I can relate to.  Teresa was not the archetype of the mild-mannered, retiring convent sister.  A complex personality, she was fiery, passionate, wild, and worldly.  She had dry times in prayers, doubts, and earthly irritations.  Divinity is brought to earth in Teresa; her honest words lend authenticity to the fact that this is truly a human endeavor we are about. 

She once wrote, “God deliver me from people so spiritual they want to turn everything into perfect contemplation no matter what.”  She did, out of necessity spend much time in contemplation herself, but toiled each day to know and live spiritually in the world.   

Courageous, she championed the reformation of the Carmelite monasteries with the Spanish Inquisitors growling at her door.  One biographer dubbed her the “warrior bride.”  For Teresa “was born with a warrior’s heart locked inside a woman’s body.”  In her burning desire to know her own soul and God’s relationship with it, she widened the notions of the sacred and added paths to holiness. 

Together with her curiosity of the natural world, Teresa provides concrete and practical advice for spiritual growth in any age.  Her poetic images of the soul, “the soul is a castle made entirely out of a diamond or a very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms,” continue to inspire my own writing.

Kathleen Norris, in the vernacular of the twentieth century, re-presents the Trinity, Christianity, and a myriad of ecclesiastical (church) practices in terms accessible to the laity.  For instance, she likens the Trinity to quarks.  These are subatomic particles that exist in threes.  There is no such thing as one quark, but only three interdependent beings, “part of the atomic glue that holds this world together.”  These kinds of analogies run through her writing, providing unusual and earthy examples to help us interpret difficult theological ideas.  For those that find much in religion too much myth, Norris reminds me to look beyond to the cycling power of metaphors.

Unique and unyielding, her questions act as steam for loosening “sacred” ambiguities, while allowing space to be enveloped in those same mysteries.  She prods the endless definitions and redefinitions of prayer as “stumbling over modern self-consciousness…with our addiction to ‘self-help’ and ‘how-to’ no wonder we have difficulty with prayer, for which the best how-to is Psalm 46: ‘be still and know that I am God.'” She states, “This can happen in an instant; it can also constitute a life’s work.”  Norris’ musings share the heart of true spiritual classics by revealing ways to unburden the intellect, disengage the ego, and surrender the whole self to the wonder of God.

The progressives among us, myself included, do well to reclaim and embrace these two women’s philosophies.

ON BEING A HERMIT

Sometimes it feels like the “world is too much with us”.  It’s a busy time of the year and I, for one, start to get to feeling like a hamster on a wheel. Graduations, weddings, end of the year concerts and recitals, and their attending to-do lists can leave little time for the prayer and meditation that helps to slow us down.  You’ll may have noticed I haven’t provided a post in over a week.

The idea of being a hermit begins to look like an attractive alternative.  Well, maybe just the solitary part, for three or four days…

For to be a true hermit in the spiritual sense is to muster more than a modicum of self-discipline and a sustained commitment to embrace the demands of soul work.  The word hermit comes from the  Latin word eremita, meaning desert.  While hermits are found in many religious traditions, “desert spirituality” or “desert theology” as it is called, has an aged Christian history.  The idea of going into the desert to remove oneself from the world and its distractions in order to form a more complete union with God can be found in both the Old and the New Testaments.  In Exodus, the Jews wandered for 40 years in the desert, and in Matthew, Jesus was tempted in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights.

The harsh and unforgiving nature of the desert becomes a means of surrender to God, physically and metaphorically.  The earliest “Desert Fathers” practiced this solitary living as part of a wholly ascetic life.  They would live in caves and huts away from civilization for years at a time, attempting to “pray without ceasing”.  Utilizing a centering prayer (meditation), they were undergoing the grueling task of training the mind to continually turn toward God.  Hunger, lust, memories, all kinds of distracting thoughts were all part of the inner struggle to reach a spiritual union.  Their prayers and their own penance would then also become a means to absolve others of their transgressions.

In this vein, it was not a selfish act to live as an ascetic, but a way to better serve others spiritually as well.  Examples of Christian hermits abound, the first two being St. Paul of Thebes in Egypt (in the 3rd century) and his disciple St. Anthony of Egypt (251-356CE). They were said to have miraculous powers and were sought out for advice and blessings.  As news spread that some of the hermits had “powers”, it became increasingly difficult for them to remain solitary. 

 At the time of Robin Hood (this is Nun Tuck’s Almanac!), many of the hermits lived in the woods, on the outskirts of communities where they might earn a living, or they lived as a monk or a nun in a monastery. From the earliest forms of Christian monasticism, religious communities arose that incorporated the basic premise of solitary life with the necessity for human relationships.  Orders of monks and nuns devoted solely to God began with the name of their founder to identify them.  Benedictines, Franciscans, Carmelites, and Dominicans lived spartan lives of prayer, meditation, and service.  Members often have a simple cell within the monastery where their quiet lives follow an obedient rhythm of silence, solitude, and devotions.

Like the Buddha, himself a hermit for a time, the practitioner needs to give up worldly pleasures and go within to experience the insight, wisdom, and peace that passeth all understanding.  It is then, and only then, that he can come back and share it with others.

Book of the Day, Teresa of Avila: Ecstasy and Common Sense by Tessa Bielecki 

Quote from the Book of the Day:  “Beginners in prayer, we can say, are those who draw water from the well.  This involves a lot of work on their own part, as I have said.  They must tire themselves in trying to recollect their senses.  Since they are accustomed to being distracted, this recollection requires much effort. They need to get accustomed to caring nothing at all about seeing or hearing, to practicing the hours of prayer, and thus to solitude and withdrawal- and to thinking on their past life.”   St. Teresa of Avila

“DOES GOD STICK A FINGER IN?”

I know, I usually end the post with a book and quote of the day, but today I’m switching things up a bit.  I’m beginning with them.  This one’s from Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being:

“Does God stick a finger in, if only now and then?  Does God budge, nudge, hear, twitch, help?  Is heaven pliable?  Or is praying eudamonistically (praying for thing and events, for rain and healing) delusional?…Since God works in and through existing conditions, I take this to mean that when the situation is close, when your friend might die or might live, then your prayer’s surrender can add enough power (mechanism unknown) to tilt the balance.  Though it won’t still earthquakes or halt troops, it might quiet cancer or quell pneumonia…I don’t know.  I don’t know  beans about God.”  

This passage struck me as particularly pertinent to a conversation I was having with a friend today.  We were discussing those that believe in fate and those who label the same events as coincidences, and how they both describe very different ways of seeing and interpreting what happens in the world (on both a public and personal level). While, in the end, we were decidedly fatalists (thinking that some Higher Power has a divine, mysterious, and overarching plan) for the oftentimes messy but nonetheless exquisite Tapestry of Life. Yet we were also in a quandary. 

My Dad had Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) about 10 years ago, an ugly tyrant of a disease. He was willing to be a guinea pig of sorts at the teaching hospitals in the Boston area.  He had faith that either someone would make a discovery that would help him suffer less, or maybe even cure him. If not, it would eventually help someone else.  That’s the kind of person he was, a lover of humanity.  He died, not as gruesomely as some, but still a beautiful soul imprisoned by his very own  body. 

My father was one of the most spiritual people I have ever had the blessing to know in a deep and meaningful way. I say this, not just as his daughter, but as an admirer among many. The faith he has gifted to me can be summed up as this: “S…t happens”, we are ultimately not in charge, and while God is not the Candyman handing out treats and granting wishes, we can be assured that some Good will be created from any and all tragedy. 

I guess you could say that some people are just born optimists, they were genetically predisposed to see the glass as half full.  One could argue that it is simply the more pragmatic of personality types that logically bend towards a philosophy of coincidence.  Both would be missing the larger point: the notion of CHOICE.  Against all odds, we humans can choose to find meaning.  To look at desparate circumstances, and still find a reason to go on, to smile, to grow, that is part of our legacy of being human.  In fact, whether “God sticks a finger in” or not, this paradigm empowers us to do amazing things.

Most Americans say that God helps with them with personal decisions.  In the March issue of The Sociology of Religion, a national survey found that 82% depend on God for help and guidance in making life choices.  Seventy-one percent believe that when good or bad things happen, these occurrences are simply part of God’s plan for them.  In addition, participants with more education and higher income were less likely to report beliefs in divine intervention.  But among the well-educated and higher earners, those who were more involved in religious rituals reported similar levels of beliefs about divine intervention as their less-educated and less financially well-off peers.

We may be given good news about an ailing relative’s healing or we may get a phone call that one we have loved has passed away.  Either way, I believe God, or Higher Power, or  He/She/It, or Whatever is greater than yourself is present, providing strength and comfort.  As to any definitives,  I don’t know.  I don’t know beans about God, either.

Mother’s Day Wasn’t Always Hearts and Flowers

Today we celebrated Mother’s Day.  In our culture, like many other occasions and events, it is a holiday that has become a commercial windfall.  Cards, flowers, chocolates, clothing, and jewelry sales all get a boost.  It is the busiest day of the year for restaurants. 

But it’s beginnings come from the suffering of the working poor (in the grit of post-war Southern lives)  and the grief of mothers, wives, and sisters of men who came home from the Civil War on both sides,  broken, maimed, vacant…or who didn’t come home at all. 

Some credit the original Anna Jarvis, a working class woman of West Virginia who was disheartened by the sanitary conditions and the mortality rates of the area in which she lived and toiled.  Out of her 13 children, only 4 of Javris’ survived.  She called for a Mother’s Day in 1858, establishing women’s work clubs to reform and improve the lives of women and children.      

Two years after her death, in the year 1907, her daughter, also Anna Jarvis, began to hold a memorial for her mother and began a campaign to make Mother’s Day a nationally recognized commemoration, which it finally became in 1914.   

Another woman instrumental in the movement to forming a national holiday for mothers (to empower women in a meaningful way) was Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910).  A  social activist  and abolitionist, Howe rallied for a Mother’s Day for Peace in 1870, where women all across the country could come out and gather in peaceful demonstrations against war in all its forms.  Ironically, Howe is best known as the author of The Battle Hymn of the Rebublic (a popular Union “fight” song), yet felt compelled to imagine and create forums for peace as the realities of war came home to her in the devastation of returning soldiers, widowed and orphaned families.  She dedicated the rest of her life to the causes of pacifism and suffrage.

Both Howe and Jarvis were outraged in their lifetimes by any commercial gain from a recognition of a Mother’s Day.  It was a day to pray and join together for peace, to remember mothers (living and deceased), to honor and support the work of mothers everywhere.  The printed greeting cards and chocolates were banal substitutes for real affection and social justice.

And while I, today, was the happy and grateful recipient of gifts, heart felt cards, and a wonderful restaurant meal from my own brood, it also good for me to be present with all of the women who came before me to make my day (of equality, freedom, and relative ease) possible.  It is also important for me to remain in solidarity with all the women of the world for whom those gifts of liberty have not yet been given.  Complacency is an insidious and  lethal anesthetic. 

I will hold my joys and  sorrows as a mother together with the joys and sorrows of those past and present with my whole heart.

Hymn of the Day: The Battle Hymn of the Rebuplic by Julia Ward Howe  (not imagery for the meek or mild, but rather a call to action) 

Quote from the Hymn of the Day: “He is coming like the morning on the glory of the wave/He is wisdom to the mighty/He is honor to the brave/His Truth is marching on….”

*An historical side note: (Julia’s husband, Samuel Howe, was the founder of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA and her maternal grandfather, Willilam Greene, was the governor of Rhode Island).  Religiously, she was both a Unitarian and member of the Society of Friends.

QUAKER GO TO MEETING TIME

When I was a kid, my parents used to play a game with my brother, sister, and I on long car rides.  It was called “Quaker Go To Meeting”. Whenever the three of us were either arguing or just being rowdy and rambunctious, my Mom would lean over into the back seat and call, “It’s Quaker go to meeting time.” The object of the “game” was to see how long each of us could go without talking.  The winner was the one who was the last to speak. Now, until we were old enough to figure out this was simply a ploy to get us to pipe down, it actually worked (at least for 3-5 minutes).  Some semblance of this game has been used since the beginning of time and across every culture when parents need just a few moments of quiet. All humans know, on some basic level, that silence, even in the briefest span, can provide a bit of needed respite or create a receptacle to gather one’s thoughts.

The idea of not speaking on purpose is central to the tenets of Quaker spirituality.  In fact, an authentic Quaker meeting is a worship service that last approximately 60 minutes and is composed of thoughtful silence, interspersed with members sharing thoughts or feelings that have come to them during the time of meditation. They only speak if the Spirit has moved them. 

While Quakers have divergent religious beliefs and no creed, they all share common roots in a Christian movement that arose in England in the middle of the 17th century by founder George Fox, who  discovered Christ while going within. Today’s Quakers do not necessarily share any Christian understanding, but they do continue to adhere to two essential principles. 

The first is a belief in the possibility of direct, unmediated communion with the Divine. The other is a commitment to living lives that outwardly attest to this inward experience.  One of the ways that Quakers (also known as The Society of Friends) demonstrate this commitment, is through the art of active listening.  The worship service provides a model on how to listen openly and compassionately as well as a time of quiet reflection and meditation.  The members then attempt to practice both throughout their daily lives.

In an article entitled “The Listening Place” the February 23, 2010 issue of  The Christian Century, Gordon Atkinson (a Texan Baptist minister) visits a Quaker meeting  and describes, “A young woman broke the silence and spoke briefly.  There was a gentle shift of attention to her and away from individual thoughts and prayers.  People shifted in their seats and assumed various listening postures…I recognized in the Quakers the unmistakable signs of practiced, active listening.  When the woman was finished with what she had to say, she sat down.  There was a moment or two in which I felt her words were still alive in the room, still being considered.  And then the Friends shifted back to their individual thoughts, prayers, and meditations…it was the most refreshing spiritual exercise I’ve had in years”.

Perhaps we, too, can carve out some Quaker go to meeting time on a daily basis.  For us, it could be a 20 to 40 minute session in conscious meditation, carrying our full attention to those we come in contact with.  There is no greater gift to another than one’s whole presence.

A SNAPSHOT OF AMERICAN UNITARIAN CHRISTIANITY

I ended yesterday’s post with a thought from Forrest Church, who in his full life of serving as the senior minister for All Souls Church in NYC, as the author of a host of spiritual books, and as a committed and articulate champion of  Unitarian Universalism, was also able to say yes to Jesus without acquiescing to any of the supernatural implications, creeds, or dogmas.   

Like the liberal theological stock that came before him , Church was able to bring forth his ideas, using the light of reason.  His voice, along with others in American Unitarian Christianity (and Universalism), emerge from a common historical prism and context.  While today there is a great variance of beliefs amongst congregations and congregants (this is an understatement!), they each evolved from the Age of Enlightenment. Yet…

All of this was seated in an era which began in Western Europe with theories of philosophical and scientific luminaries the likes of (DesCartes, 1633 and Issac Newton, 1688, respectively),who  gave the human mind preeminent status over the rest of the body.  This glorification of human reason,which would in hindsight have its own set of limitations, allowed for fresh breezes to blow through the unyielding and sometimes suffocating interpretation of scripture and tradition. 

While hotly contested, many theologians and parishioners began to believe that the meaning in Christianity should be focused more on this life and less on the here after.  It is what Jesus said and did that were paramount, not who he was or wasn’t.  These faithful did not consider themselves to be blasphemers or even heretics.  They simply felt that this was the natural and logical progression of Christian faith, whose seeds of dissent were planted at the time of the Reformation (1517) and were borne from the much rockier soil of turbulent Jerusalem.    

William Ellery Channing, educated in the Congregational spirit at Harvard, became the foremost Unitarian preacher in the U.S. during this time of widening and shifting viewpoints. Channing extolled the possibility for revelation through reason rather than solely from scripture.  Noting in his sermons, “Unitarian Christianity” (1819) and “Likeness to God”, we could choose to reject the notion of divine election put forth by the Calvinists or the idea of human nature coming from a state of total depravity, and instead believe in human goodness and human potential.

“We do then, with all earnestness, though without reproaching our brethren, protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity…to us, as to the Apostle and primitive Christians, there is one God, ever the Father.  With Jesus, we worship the Father, as the only living and true God.  We are astonished that any man (person) can read the New Testament and avoid the conviction, that the Father alone is God.”

Today’s Unitarian Universalists form a wide swath of belief;  there are those who believe in a traditional God, another kind of God, no God, or Something Else. Like Channing and his fellow theologians, among them Henry Ware, Theodore Parker, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, UU’s bring to Reason their American sensibilities, namely, freedom and democracy. It has been this contagious spirit of liberty that has allowed God talk  to continue to evolve, in many ways unfettered, in the universities, the pulpit, and the pews.  Combined with the rapid and dramatic changes in the world in the past several centuries, in the areas of science, technology, business, and warfare (the first two World Wars taking place in the 20th century) the conversation continues, always rendering more questions.    

Book of the Day, Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism, Essays, Kathleen Rolenz, “Unitarian Universalists need Jesus, too. First of all, we need to connect with our own history.  We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Jesus.  We neglect our own history at our peril. We also must become more comfortable with traditional religious language.  We must be able to speak the language of another’s religious tradition without hesitation or fear.  we don’t want a marginalized faith on the world’s stage.  And finally, I believe we must genuinely embrace the religious diversity of our own church members-including the Christians among us.

A UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST APOLOGETIC (Part II)

The Unitarian and Universalist movements are quintessentially American in their ideals.  In fact, Thomas Jefferson predicted that “Unitarianism, ere long, will be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt”. (Oops, Thomas.) In addition, during the late 17th and early 18th century, the Universalists were the 6th largest denomination in the U.S.  (Yet, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, neither of these faiths were focused on promoting their religion while many other denominations were primarily intent on building large numbers of  converts.)

Still, a great many important figures in American history were prominent members of the Unitarian and Universalist faiths. Before discussing them however, it is important to say a few words about what was  happening “across the pond” as a necessary preamble to placing the two movements (now one religion) into context.

The antitrinitarian Michael Servetus whose heretical ideas of the Unity of God was burned at the stake in Geneva in 1553.  In Transylvania, Francis David (a Catholic bishop) preached “Unitarian” ideals around 1560.  His words, “We need not think alike to love alike” are still spoken by Unitarians today. He was imprisoned for his beliefs and died there in 1579.  His contemporary, Faustus Socinus was an Italian scholar who developed a school of thought known as socinianism while in Poland and Transylvania. These ideas were the forerunners of  Unitarianism. 

 The English theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, known for discovering the gas oxygen and inventing soda water (1733-1804)embraced socinian ideas, and developed a Unitarian congregation in England.  He was so persecuted for his beliefs, he left England for Pennsylvania, where he founded the first Unitarian church in Philadelphia in 1793.    

The American Universalists were initially from England, but after settling in Pennsylvania (a mecca of religious liberty), they added to their ranks a combination of immigrant Anabaptists from Germany, Moravians from the area of Czechoslovakia, and the Quakers of England and Holland.  While these variant Protestant denominations differed in certain beliefs, they all agreed on the universal salvation of every person after death…no eternal damnation.  Their first official church was in Philadelphia by Elhanan Winchester, who also printed the first German bible in America.  

So, some were mainline Protestants, others were progressively liberals, and all took an optimists’ view of God.

While I will (in some future post) go into more detail on the deeper history of on Unitarianism and Universalism and their somewhat recent union, here is the promised (not exhaustive) list of UU contributors to our country:

John Adams (2nd president of the US) /  Abigail Adams (“Remember the women”) /  John Quincy Adams (6th president of the US)/    Millard Filmore (13th president of the US)  / Dorothea Dix (a social reformer, activist for the mentally ill, instrumental in creating the first hospitals for the mentally ill, also Superintendent of Nurses during the Civil War)/ Susan B. Anthony (suffragette, allowing the women the vote) / Ralph Waldo Emerson (writer, minister, and philosopher)/Louisa May Alcott (writer, famous for Little Women) / Herman Melville (writer, famous for Moby Dick)/ Horace Mann (father of our public school education system) /  Thomas Jefferson (not officially, but in spirit) / William James (Father of American psychology)/  Nathaniel Hawthorne (writer, famous for The Scarlet Letter) / Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (prolific poet and writer) / Clara Barton (founder of the Red Cross) /  PT Barnum (Circus Fame and benefactor of Tufts University) / Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone)/Samuel Morse (inventor of Morse Code) / Walt Whitman (writer and poet, famous for Leaves of Grass) /      Fannie Farmer (cook and cookbook writer)/George Pullman (inventor of the railroad sleeping car)/ Paul Revere (patriot and silversmith)/ Linus Pauling (Chemist, Peace activist, winner of both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, considered the Father of Molecular Biology)/  Henry David Thoreau (naturalist, philosopher, writer of Walden Pond)/  William Ellery Channing (foremost early preacher of Unitarianism in the US, his approach was a gentle, loving relationship with God, grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence)

The common thread that ran through the lives of these writers, social reformers, politicians, scientists, ministers, inventors, business tycoons, and patriots, was the call to live out their convictions about justice, freedom, liberty, and love in action.  They did not just think about these lofty ideals, they used their talents and time in ways they made a difference.  Today’s Unitarian Universalists are called to the same task. 

Book of the Day, Lifecraft by Forrest Church

Quote from the Book of the Day: “I do my best to follow Jesus’ teachings, and sometimes (on my good days) I call myself a Christian, but given the manifold possibilities for discovering and creating meaning, I cannot embrace a dogmatic creed, even one established in Jesus’ name.”