A WHIRLING DERVISH

Lately I’ve been feeling like a whirling dervish…except that I’ve been getting dizzy.  If you’ve ever since those Persian/Turkish dancers with their high hats, loose slacks, and robes spinning in unison, you may think, well, of course they’re getting dizzy.  But the aim is ironically the opposite; they’re surpassing dizzy.

Dervishes are like Christian Orders.  Among the Catholics, there are Franciscan Friars (which I would have been if I had been male), Dominicans, Jesuits, Paulists, and Benedictines.  The Sufis (the mystics of Islam) have their fraternal orders as well and these are called Dervishes.  Among some of the more important dervishes are the Qadir, Rifa’i, Shadhili, Suhrawardi, and the Mevlevi.  Like their Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist (known as sadhus) counterparts, individuals within the discipline of a dervish are practicing asceticism or a chosen simplicity and poverty, what the Sufis call tariqa (the path, the way to God).   

All dervishes do not whirl.  Each order follows the practices of its founder.  The Franciscans follow St. Francis of Assisi,  (the charismatic nobleman and soldier who gave up everything save God), wearing rough, plain garments, they live completely by alms, and serve the poorest of humanity and the needs of animals.   In Egypt, the Qadiryya dervish, also live humbly and give to the poor, but what sets them apart, is they are mostly comprised of one profession, they are fishermen.  Interesting to note, the more we are different, the more we are the same.  There was another famous fisher of men in Galilee, a Jesus of Nazareth, whose apostles were also fishermen. I guess you could say in some ways, that Jesus was the founder of his particular dervish.

But the dervish that whirls is the Mevlevi dervish. Founder Mevlana Jaladdin Rumi (1207-1273), the renowned mystic and prolific poet included the trance-like dancing as part of his practice of tariqa.  Rotating in a precise rhythm, the dance is part of a sacred ceremony.  The dancer represents the earth revolving on its axis while orbiting the sun.  The purpose of the ritual is to empty oneself of all distracting thoughts. Entering a meditative state, the body conquers dizziness.

There is intention.   When I am spinning my wheels, with a to-do list that is attacked like putting out a fire, tangled up in a lengthy fire hose, un-intentionally wrapped around myself like a boa constrictor; I have not entered the dance mindfully, but rather stumbled onto to the dance floor befuddled.  “Music is to develop the consciousness, poetry is wisdom”, said the prophet Muhammad.  Music, an essential accompaniment to whirling, is repetitive and rises to a crescendo of spiritual oneness, the blurring and blending of the material and cosmic worlds.

It is also about the breath.  It is bringing the body and mind just to the present.   

One of the many reasons that Rumi is known and loved across faiths and cultures is that his prolific writings speak to the timeless life of the Spirit. His message speaks of NOW:

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi or Zen.  Not any religion, or cultural system.  I am not from the East or the West, nor out of the ocean or up from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not composed of elements at all.  I do not exist, am not an entity in this world or the next, did not descend from Adam and Eve or any origin story.  My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless,  neither body nor soul.  I belong to the beloved, have seen the two worlds as one and that one call to and know. First, last, outer, inner, only that breath breathing human. (Rumi Poem, Only Breath).

Always, a returning, a turning back, no matter how many times one has strayed.

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WHAT DOES BEING ‘SPIRITUAL NOT RELIGIOUS’ REALLY MEAN?

On March 19th, my blog post was entitled The Top Ten Religious Words that the Spin Doctors Doctored. Under #6 was the word ‘religion’, I wrote: “I don’t want to beat a dead horse here.  I mean, after all, hasn’t this word been bludgeoned enough.  But, this word, which has come to represent difference and divisiveness, was originally just a verb, religio, meaning ‘bringing together that which is separated.’ So, all I’m gonna say is, huh?”

My intention in this post is not to try to get you to go to church or not go to church, but to think about the implications involved in the personal belief statement of being “spiritual but not religious.”

When I’m at a party, the gym, at a school function…and I hear, “Oh, I’m spiritual not religious”, I always ask what the person means by that.  Usually, the answers are a combination of the following,  “I didn’t agree with a lot of what the xyz church that I grew up in believes”, “I don’t get anything out of going to church”, “Religion is a construct created by the powerful to appease the poor and downtrodden”, “They’re so hypocritical, the church leaders and so many people I know that go to church”, and so on. 

You know what, I agree with a lot of what they tell me.  There has been a lot of “unholy alliances” between individuals, governments, and church bodies.  Much of what they articulate about why they don’t go to church or practice a faith or why they feel disillusioned or skeptical about much of what is essentially dogma (a good working definition of dogma being, “a corpus of doctrines set forth in an authoritative manner by a church”), are all things I can give a hearty Amen to.

So when people say they are not religious, they mean they have chosen not to limit themselves to the reduced definition of religion as a particular church, synagogue, or mosque with its doctrines, its own definitions of sin, salvation, and exclusions.   

When they do express some of their spiritual practices or ways of experiencing the spiritual, there is also much to concur with. My Buddhist friends use a variety of meditations, both alone and in groups.  And while some will agree that using the original meaning of religion, they are indeed religious. While  others, on principle, still detest the idea. They prefer to call it a philosophy of thought. Here, again, semantics do indeed shape and inform our worldview. Whether it be early bad experiences with a “religion” that has scarred or the in-your- face fundamentalists whose fanatical zeal causes one to recoil…the result is the same.    

Some friends are in 12 step programs, recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, and their loved ones. One of the principles of these programs is that they are a spiritual not religious program.  Again, meaning they are asking you to discover for yourself “God as you understand Him or Her” and to turn your life and will over to the care of this “Higher Power”.  However, this is not done alone, but rather with the aid and support of the group.

When I get a vague answer about trying to be a good person, they often add how they don’t need a church to become one (agreed). Most of the people who say this, I know to be good people, caring and true.  So, when I ask them if they could be a bit more specific, they say things like they go weekly with their family to volunteer at a food bank or they are a part of quilting bee that creates blankets for those undergoing cancer treatments.    All of the above examples include a component of community as part of the individual spiritual framework.

“My own kind of prayer” and “being in nature” (responses I often get) are also spiritual experiences and are vital parts of the equation, but are not complete without the balance of others.  I too often find a  centering while walking in the woods, a wonderful “un-lonely” solitude, that feels a communion with God. Yet it also feeds me so that I can help, serve, and nurture others and that I am able to receive the same from them.

In closing, an excerpt from A House for Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker:  

“Is it really preferable (0r even possible) to be religious alone?  Or, is there an importance to religious community life that need to be claimed anew, while protecting against the liabilities and dangers that community life can pose?  I strongly believe the answer to the first question is no and the answer to the second is yes.  We need life together, and we would be wise to invest in rebuilding the walls of community.  My suspicion is that religious conservatism has grown not because its theology is more inspiring than that of liberal theology, but because conservatives in recent decades have been better at creating and sustaining religious communities that offer people meaningful connection with one another and support in enduring life’s trials and tribulations.”

 So…I am back, congregants of the blogosphere!…new job…yada yada.

I HEAR YOU STEPHEN HAWKING, AND…

How serendipitous! The BBC news agency published an article on Sept. 2nd relating that Prof. Stephen Hawking, in his latest book The Grand Design, has concluded that God was not necessary to create the universe. Among Hawking’s statements: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch-paper and set the universe going”…”The Big Bang was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics”…and finally, and for me, most importantly, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”

In my August 31st post entitled “Awe…some”, I was offering a different way to think about God, using new language to include God in the discussion with a wide swath of people with variant viewpoints.  It was not the anthropomorphic construct of a Father or Lord with flowing, shimmering robes and a long white beard.  Rather it was “God as the ultimate mystery of things, as the serendipitous creativity manifest throughout the universe…through which new forms and configurations of reality and life have come into being.” (Thank you Gordon Kaufman).

Spontaneous creation says Hawking, Serendipitous creativity says Kaufman.  Scientist, Theologian.  To my way of thinking, the more that one wants to separate these two fields of inquiry, the closer they appear to fuse.  Science and Religion are compatible. They need not be at odds with one another. Whether we are referring to either science or religion, we must be willing to expand our vocabulary, to open our minds to ways of seeing the world, the universe, in ways that to previous generations seemed unimaginable.  This takes both a willing faith to jump into the unknown as well as all of our faculties of reason to make sense of our new discoveries.

The prevalent worldview is that there is only “this”-the space-time world of matter and energy and whatever  other natural forces lie behind or beyond it.  This modern, nonreligious construct has no foundational place for tradition notions of God.  It thus makes the reality of God problematic.  For some, it leads to rejecting the reality of God, or at least to serious doubts about God, and thus to atheism or agnosticism.

And for those who continue to believe in God, it changes how God is thought of.  Many Christians basically accept the modern worldview’s image of reality and then add God onto it.  God is the one who created the space-time world of matter and energy as a self-contained system, set it in motion, and perhaps sometimes intervenes in it.  God becomes a supernatural being “out there” who created a universe from which God is normally absent.  This is a serious distortion of the meaning of the word “God”.

For me, God always points to something greater,  a “More” and an “And” . Why can’t God be Creator, Spontaneous Creation, and Serendipitous Creativity? We can live out of our imaginations. The vision of reality emerging in postmodern physics does not settle our understandings once and for all.  Religion and postmodern science alike both point to a stupendous “More.”  

 People throughout history and across cultures have had experiences that seem overwhelmingly to be experiences of the sacred.  There are also the quieter forms of religious experiences that happen in the dailiness of our lives.  We witness natural disasters and unmitigated tragedies, and we then we see nature growing and returning to burned forest or flood damaged lands. We hear stories of hope and compassion, beacons of light that rise up when the odds would bet otherwise.   While these experiences can’t be quantified, they can be qualified.  Existence refuses to quit creating.  This experiential base of religion is quite strong; it is ultimately what I find to be its most persuasive ground.

In closing, some words from Marcus Borg: “Finally, no story can be told about the truth of God. It can’t be argued or televised.  And witnesses can’t prove it exists.  Yet the truth of God brings peace instantly.  There is only one unchanging truth about anyone and everyone.  None are left outside of the warm assurance and gentle rest it offers, because God’s truth is Love.”