Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Church of my Childhood

It was a small church, whose memory has become a part of me. 

It was one of those intimate churches with Gothic arches in the windows and maybe up above - but I just recall a feeling of peace.  And that feeling is not connected with any ritual or public prayer.

It was a time when churches could be left open.  When children were encouraged by the nuns "to make a visit" - even to cross themselves when walking in front of the church.  But especially to stop in, on their own, and visit God.  I have no idea if other children took that advice.  And thankfully no one ever wanted a record of such visits, like librarians wanted a record of the books we read - a book report.

So it was the church itself and the freedom, the peace, the quiet, the non-demanding atmosphere of being there all alone - with GodIn the presence of this Mystery.  That had a powerful impact upon a child who was all too constrained at home and at school and during enforced stillness and obedience of Mass, Rosaries, Benediction, Stations of the Cross, Confessions (oh, dear God, the things I made up to get through that!), and other stuff we had to do - because we were catholic and if we did it all - perfectly - we wouldn't go to hell like every one else.  (Or so they scared us.)

So here was this place of pregnant stillness and mystery.  And if you went there - all alone - you weren't really alone and not only that, the real God who did forgive if you just said you were sorry was somehow there - in a protective way, in a quiet, holy way which left me free.  Free - as no other place seemed to be - except the woods - also a place of mystery, freedom, peace (where I sometimes said mass on the Old Tree Stump).  Because the church was unlocked,  I could stop in on the way home from school.  Or on my trips back and forth to the library.  Walking, mind you.  Walking a mile with a pile of books is not easy when you're 7 or 8, nor at 9 or 10!  So a rest stop must have been very enticing at times:  The peace there.  The lack of adult scrutiny.  My own "conversation" with God instead of rote prayers.

Entering the church, one's eyes adjusting to the dimness, candles flickering faintly in the distance, there was the familiar holy water font - which should mean fountain, for flowing.  And I did once see one flowing like a fountain - overflowing really, right into a Baptismal pool (the size and shape exactly of a coffin), with steps going down into it.  When I saw that, less than 10 years ago, it hit me like a powerful shock of deep meaning - which gave me to understand the very Mystery of Baptism.  It hit me like a thunderclap!  Instant understanding.  Tears flowed.  So deeply did that understanding flow from.

Now, within the Orthodox Church, I have come to see even more of this Mystery.  Theophany, the Blessing of Water, the plunging of the Cross into the Water.  Three times plunged.  Three times raised high.  By our priest.  In solemn silence.  Exactly as he does when baptizing a baby.  The Baptism of Christ and our Baptism.  The dying and the rising - together.  Yes, my own heart has been deeply plunged and is now immersed in these Mysteries.

So here was I.  Ages 7, 8, 9, 10....  Till we moved.  In these two places where God's abiding Presence was available to me.  I'm not sure I understood, till recently, how the woods functioned that way too.  But I certainly felt it those times I visited God's Presence in church.  Alone.  Tiny child, as I look back - even in the modest church.  An architecture which spoke of mystery.  The holy water on entry.  Tiny candles flickering in the darkness, filtered daylight flowing through stained glass.  The sanctuary behind its communion rail.  Red flickering candle signifying God's Presence.  Side altars for St. Joseph (on the left) and Mary (on the right).

I tended to light my candles in front of St. Joseph - his altar seemed neglected in favor of Mary, so I gave him the attention he seemed to lack from others.  Just as I came to regard the Holy Spirit as God's neglected Person, when it came to people's devotion.  So I adopted the Spirit too, you could say.  Of course it was the other way around!  But I didn't really understand that part yet.

And around the sanctuary, there were words written.  Words that surrounded the round space there.  Words it took me a long time to figure out.  For they were written in this fancy script.  Capital letters, each one so fancy it was hard to parse their import as a "letter" - to be divined.  A message to be worked out over time:  Lord, I love the beauty of your house.  The place where your glory dwells.  Yes! 

Those words entered into me.  I saw them so many times.  I must have memorized them quite by accident - as gradually, the place and its beauty entered into my heart and soul.   I didn't yet understand the glory dwelling within me too.  But that was part of where it started.

At some point I discovered the holy water dispensary, where you could get some for yourself.  I wanted that.  Had nothing to put it in.  Found an old discarded wine bottle or liquor bottle outside somewhere.  I filled it up.  Carried it home.  It must have been quite a sight for passing motorists!  ;)  No recollection left beyond the carrying.  Not sure it ever was saved on my behalf - given how it had arrived, likely smelling of alcohol I'm sure.

Once when I was sick, and listening to the radio...  maybe the time I had chicken pox?  I heard these words, as if addressed to me personally:
Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.
Those words entered into me as well.  Somehow I either came to memorize them or they were so powerful they simply stayed with me.  Words of comfort, which I think made so much more of an impact, given that everything else (except for endless prayers of the Rosary) was in Latin!  It was likely a protestant preacher on the radio.  But it felt as if Jesus was speaking directly to me.  As if those words of Jesus were calling to me, drawing me.  And I was prompted to consider my situation.  Here I was in a house, with clothing, attending school, fed, kept warm.  I felt blessed.  I really understood that.  But scared at the same time.  Come to Me...  Take my yoke.  Those words were a comfort but also a summons - one that scared me as a small child:  What would God ask of me one day, I wondered.  Where was this leading?  Would I be up to it?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Paradox of Believing

Where are you from?  That's a question I've never really been able to answer.  People always ask you that when you're new.  Maybe you never noticed.  Unless you moved a lot.  As I did.  Eventually, by  my mid-thirties or so, I simply started answering "from the womb".  It was true.  It was a short answer.  It turned the question upside down.

There were two moves that were easy.  One was going to college, when just about everyone had arrived from somewhere else.  The other was in high school because it turned out just about everyone's dad worked for the government in some aspect of guided missiles.  I have to say it was the most wonderful experience to meet people who had lived all over.  Military brats have that experience all the time.  But I really only had it that once - fitting in easily, everyone open to new friendships, knowing what it was to be the "new kid" in a new school.

Fortunately I was blessed with an ability to make friends easily.  But that did not make it easy to be uprooted and plunked down yet again, every few years.  By the second grade, I'd moved 7 times and been in 3 different schools.  In the fifth grade we moved yet again.  Eighth grade, same thing.  Three high schools.  And the longest time in a single school was college.  Also my final graduate degree.

There are pluses and minuses to being a nomad.  For one thing you learn that rules for games might be different in different places.  You find this out the hard way.  Accents, of course, are also different.  Indeed whatever accent you arrive with marks you as different.  A sensitive child, as I was, quickly comes to empathize with anyone else who's on the outside, looking in.  So as I think back I can see that I always reached out to those on the fringes, those who were bashful or new or felt excluded.  I'd been there - I knew how painful that was.

By and large I think all of this taught me both compassion and acceptance.  There was never really a chance to become exclusive - even if my church taught that to some degree.  I knew people attended different churches and had different customs for holidays or ways of making recipes or rules for games they played.  Schools marched to different drummers.  Families and homes were unique - and I could see how that affected the children who grew up in them.  Once I even knew someone who lived in an orphanage.

So, as I say, there was never really a chance to become exclusive.  Even when I knew I belonged to a group or a church or a club, even when I gathered that those things were somehow interpreted by others to exclude me, the drawing of boundaries or the view that the other side of the fence was one to be avoided never really entered into my character.  As I think back I guess I was more interested in simply getting to know where people were coming from in a psychological sense.   What they thought.  What they believed.  How they viewed the world, themselves.  I have no idea how many other people sat around and talked about such things in high school.  But I sure did.  College, same thing.

All of this is partly like groundwork I'm laying for where I'm going with this post.

I was always very interested in religion.  I suspect I had a firm sense of God as Real in my life - from very early on.  I suspect, as well, that this offered me a kind of stability in the midst of so many changes growing up.  And I'm not talking "church" really.  I'm talking a sense of God as mattering - or even deeper - a sense of mattering to God.  Which is pretty amazing for a kid - now that I think on it.  In fact to some degree it amazed me that my own parents seemed less aware of this, less attentive to it, than I was.   Though Judy's family surely was aware, and their daily lives made that evident (the keeping of Kosher, the lighting of candles, the fact that religion, for them, was part of family life).   In my own way I guess I let God - as a Reality - become part of my life.  As a child God seemed most Real to me when I was alone in an empty church.  Empty of people, but full of God's Presence.  God was also very, very real to me in the woods.  Indeed, I think nature, for me, was always infused with a sense of God's Presence from my earliest years.  And later on as well.

After those years when I was introduced to Judaism (by Judy's family - from about ages 7 to 11), everywhere I moved I was fascinated with the religion or denomination of other people.  I was especially interested not in what the churches preached, but in what people thought or felt - their inward experience of this Sacred Reality - which grounded me through all those moves.

Even though I was really only exposed to Christianity and Judaism, I knew from reading and rereading my book on the The World's Great Religions that there were other traditions as well - traditions which affected people's lives, which invited ceremonies and rituals, which called to some people so strongly that they left family and home and everything to seek the Divine.

The only call I ever felt was the call to priesthood.  And it was the shock of my young life when I learned that girls could not become priests, or even altarboys.  

Now where am I going with this post, you may be wondering...  Ok, I think I've laid enough groundwork to do that now (not just in this post, but across posts, within this blog as a whole):

I think I've tried to help you see how much Holy Mystery matters.  But also how firmly convinced I am that Holy Mystery is so far beyond our conception, beyond our classifications, beyond our limited grasp of what a participation in Divine Life might mean:  That no honest response to God is outside of God's rejoicing.  Even an honest atheist!  An honest agnostic!  That God loves everyone And will meet you on any path.  That God has made every effort, and will continue to make every effort, to reach out - to each and every person.  Because God is a seeker, a beggar - a humble supplicant.  Yes, we on our end may search as well.  But Holy Mystery is the Great Seeker.  The Great Giver.  The maker of holy souls.  Without exclusion!

Now, I well realize that there are many religious folk out there who will vehemently disagree with me.  And my response to that is:  Take it up with God.  Be my guest.

Because a long time ago, in high school  (I can see myself exactly where I was when I had this insight), I realized (was it inspiration?) that we humans each have our own unique relationship with Holy Mystery (as I prefer to call it now).  That it's as if God is at the center point of a sphere - and each person on the globe is arrayed around this central point.  And each and every one, like the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, has a particular vantage point, a particular view of "who God is" - and unless we're standing in their shoes, looking from their perspective, we may not understand what they see or how they see what they profess or experience.

So I had this image.  It has never changed.  It's importance has only grown and deepened.

I live a paradox.  I realize that.  I've long ago accepted it.  For I profess a Christian faith.  (I now feel very at home within the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  I am striving to deepen my understanding of this.)  Yet at the same time I have so much reverence for other faith traditions, other ways for comprehending the Divine in our midst, Ultimate Reality, all the myriad ways that God tries to reach people, to shake them up, to get us to see and care and mature spiritually.  Or ethically. To me, that is PART of this Divine Life, this Holy Mystery, which surrounds us and invades our lives and dwells within us.  Holy Mystery - so far beyond our human limitations, our philosophical exclusions, our tightly-wound doctrines, our efforts to define and pin down the Sacred Mystery which can never be pinned down, which never has to follow the rules humans have come up with and imposed on each other.

So yes, I do have my unique vantage point from which I experience the Divine in our midst.  Yet at the same time I have this larger image which is also a true perspective for me - from which I see everyone's connection to Holy Mystery.  I just love that it's all a mystery!

And what about the Christian's responsibility to preach the Gospel?  Well... if you have failed to hear the Good News in this post....

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Faced with a Dilemma at 7 or 8... The road not taken

My best friend in childhood was Jewish.  Judy G.  She moved in a bit after we did.  Her family moved into her cousins' house about a block away from our house.  I was glad to see the cousins go.  They had tormented a dog so much that it would try to bite you, even though it was tied up behind a fence.  I used to walk many blocks out of my way to get to Judy's house, just to avoid that dog with its fierce teeth and scary bark.  My brother had been bitten.  That was enough to scare me.

At some point the dog went.  But Judy and her family stayed.

We lived on a corner.  So did she.  So did her grandparents, right across the street from us.  She had wonderful grandparents.  So I ended up with a Jewish Bubbi because of Judy.  And her grandparents - who welcomed me into the family, just as her parents did.  Only now... across the years and knowing things I never really knew then, do I realize they must have known, what I as a kid never knew.   I had a very strange mother (mentally ill, mostly keeping to herself, though she did her best and fed us nutritious meals and put us to bed all too early and made us responsible for household chores... which, if not done to her specifications ... well, let's not go there.)

Judy and her family kept Kosher.  They went to Temple.   Right across from my parochial school.  Judy was learning Hebrew.  Bubbi had a Hebrew primer, from which I tried to learn a bit myself.  But 7 or 8 was probably a bit early to try and learn a language on your own.  Besides... we had Latin.  Masses were totally in Latin.  Not that anyone tried to teach us or anything.... That honestly seemed a bit strange to me.  Especially when Judy and her sister (a bit later) were given so much instruction in Hebrew.  I was kinda jealous about that...

At some point the parents must have made a decision to allow Judy and I to celebrate each other's religious holidays.  Though I mostly recall celebrating with Judy and her family.  Jews had more holidays as I think about it now.  We pretty much only had Christmas or Easter.  But those were 2 days only.  Her holidays weren't only one day long.  They'd last a week at least!  It always seemed to me, as a small child, that Jewish children got a lot more from their religion than we did.   Ours required endless sitting in church... being forced to go to confession, to do endless rosaries, stations of the cross - truly it was excruciating boredom!  How I managed to survive that and end up with "faith" is beyond me!

So here I was in the parochial school.  Walking a mile or more each way.  With short legs...  While Judy and her sister were bussed to the public school, maybe half as far, only, as we had to walk.  Truly the differences between our lives were like night and day.  Now that I think on it.  From the vantage point of many years ago.

In some ways I think I practically got adopted by her family.  Many a time I went with them to visit relatives - all the way to Brooklyn, where they'd moved from, into the cousins house.  Or even out to the ritzy, woodsy setting, where the cousins had moved to.  So with Bubbi and Bubba (I think that's what we called him) and her family near me and the Brooklyn relatives and the cousins, it seems I was enfolded into this Jewish family.  And for all I know it's the reason I am sane today!

So as I say, at some point it must have been decided by the elders to allow me so much time with this Jewish family.  Even though the Catholic Church would likely have frowned on that.  Had they known.  Maybe my father would have frowned on that too.  But he was mostly at work.  Often arriving home long after we were in bed and leaving sometimes before we went to school.  Plus the traveling; he was often away on business for weeks at a time.

So I was blessed with this wonderful introduction to Judaism.  As a young child.  And what's amazing, I think, is how it happened and how much I was able to experience and benefit, especially given what I am about to relate.  For how I squared the two religions is a wonder to me!  Even now.

I was in the second grade when this happened.  With Sister Rose or Rosalie.  I can't recall, since I had two elderly nuns whom I dearly loved as teachers - with similar names.  One in the second grade.  Another in the 6th.  So... one name or the other was teaching me in the second grade.

Picture this.  At the time I am speaking of, Catholic children were made to curtsy to the nuns or to bow, depending on whether you were a girl or a boy.  Plus, we had to kneel for prayers.  During which time the nun could go around, making sure the little girls had uniforms which reached the floor when you were kneeling.  Doesn't make much sense for keeping your skirt clean, but the nuns had their reasons - even if we were only 7 or 8 years old then...

Ok, so first thing in the morning, every morning for years if you attended parochial school, after you'd had the morning prayers and pledged to the flag (mind you, we learned the pledge then without the words "under God" - imagine that!)...  Ok, so right after those two rituals, we had religious instruction.  Always first thing in the day.  Mostly it consisted of reciting answers from the catechism.  "Why did God make you?"  Stuff like that.  There were answers we had to memorize.  And recite.  Perfectly!  Well, I knew what it was to have perfection expected.  And the dire consequences that could follow in the absence of the expected perfection.  So believe you me, I knew my catechism!  Perfectly!

Now, mind you, it was never necessary to understand what you were reciting.  Oh, no!  Just as it was never necessary to understand what you had to say in Latin during the long, boring times when you had to sit in church.  Perfectly quiet!  Unless reciting Latin that made no sense... 

As I've said on other occasions, many things in my childhood left me puzzled.   And I became a pondering child...

So on this particular occasion we were actually learning about something in religion and not just reciting.  Like the times we learned Bible stories.  Moses.  The ark.  Stuff like that.  Well, this morning we were learning about Baptism.  We were told that Baptism, plus all the boring stuff we had to do because we'd been baptized, would ensure us of Eternal Life.  Once we were dead.  After being judged.  Something like Santa and Christmas.  Except it would be forever!  And seemed to require:  Perfection!

Ok, so it was made clear to us that only those who were Baptized Catholic could get to heaven.  Everyone else was going to Hell.

Can you see where this is going???

We were also taught how to baptize.  And we were going to practice it.  The girls were invited to bring their dolls.  And it had been explained to us that while Baptism was normally done in Church (in Latin of course!) we could, in an emergency, do it ourselves.  After practicing, of course.  And guess what?  We were actually taught the words for this:  In English!

So here I am.  A kid whose mother was swift and sure in her punishments.  Many a time... even many times when I didn't even understand why I was being punished.   (I now have a lot of compassion for what it must have been for my mother to be mentally ill, at home by herself - except for my baby sister, sometimes without a spouse for a weeks at time when my dad traveled.)  So, I was 7 or 8.  And naturally a kid gets to view God and the "punishment" that was always being warned (if you didn't obey God's expectations perfectly) as being like a "parent" - after all he was called Father.

So... what was to become of Judy?  And her family?  And Bubbi?  And all the relatives?

This must have seemed a huge burden and worry to me.  But I suspect I focused just on the beloved Judy.  My friend.  My same age!  Never baptized!

What to do?  What to do?

It actually made no sense to me to practice on a doll.  When there was Judy!!!

Don't worry!  It never got that far!!

I was a pretty verbal child.  And I must have been talking to Judy about this.  For all I know I'd been talking to her mother or Bubbi.  For after all, this was a huge, huge burden that had been laid on my shoulders by the beloved, elderly nun.  Who had no way of knowing my best friend in the whole world was Jewish!

In any case all of this must have gotten back to my mother.  Probably in a very compassionate way.  For my welfare and Judy's welfare.  And to prevent all hell from breaking loose.  Or whatever it might have caused....  For I simply have no recollection beyond the sense that I had to baptize Judy and the letting go of it.  Sort of like that time I got stuck in the mud.  Was that a screen memory for this dilemma?  I will never know.

Because I never did baptize Judy.  (Who later married a Catholic...)

Somehow, in my 7 or 8 year old mind, I must have arrived at a solution to the problem.  Maybe I did it by concluding that God, who I knew would forgive if you simply said you were sorry, was OK with it. (I'd been taught that the year before - even though the grown-ups never did seem to understand and punished you anyway...)  So I must have concluded that God would understand.  And on top of that I must have concluded that all these different religions were OK with God.  Someone might have helped me see that.  Or maybe it was clear to me by looking at that picture book of all the world's religions, the one where no matter which religion they had photographed, the people all looked earnest and pious and it was obviously TRUE for all of them.

And that has made all the difference....

Monday, September 27, 2010

In the middle of the way....

I get intrigued by questions.  Indeed the genesis of this blog dates back to a question.  And so many of my early memories relate to questions I had as a child, things that intrigued me or puzzled me.  So I know it's a trait that has been with me pretty much all my life.

Right now there are several questions I'm pursuing.   And it's led me to literally start a couple more blogs in order to organize my thinking, my writing - or at least attempt to do that.  So, just in case you were wondering...  In my mind this blog, Nothingness, is more or less related to my personal experiences and speculations on them.  Memories.  Stepping stones along a spiritual path.  Poetry about that.  Attempts to analyze or plumb the depths of what it all might mean or where it points.  And while some may read here with interest I really have no need to gather readers, unless it may be helpful to others in some way.  Nor, as I make clear on the sidebar, do I claim any special "standing" except as it relates to my own efforts to understand, feeling my way, as it were, in the darkness or sometimes in flashes of insight.  So pretty much what I write here (with a few exceptions) relates to experiences of long ago, things I have pondered much, experiences which have shaped me and led me to press on, like a child would trail along behind a parent, pursuing Holy Mystery, that Presence that has been with me, I am sure, all my life, which gives my life meaning yet plunges it into Mystery, into the Holy Nothingness where Mystery arises within.

Questions.  Yes, I get intrigued by them.  For whatever reason I'm not content with easy answers.  And I'm not content unless somehow any "answers" - even if I ultimately arrive at "it's a Mystery" - fit my own experience and dovetail with revealed Truth as written in the scriptures and in the lives and writings of those who have staked everything - way more than I have - on the veneration and single-minded devotion to Holy Mystery.  And that includes holy souls of other faiths.  For as scripture tells us, with regard to Holy Wisdom:
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
So I have dipped into other traditions - always maintaining one cardinal caution, keeping to the main paths or the mystical routes of such paths, routes trodden over the centuries by single-hearted monks and nuns and solitaries, those willing to go beyond words and concepts and images and certainly beyond any fame or fortune.  And this has fascinated me since childhood - where I had two favorite picture books, one of every type of musical instrument, the other of the world's religions, in which I pondered over and over photos of religious worshipers or ceremonies, drinking in the sense of the sacred.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Like a Prayer...

There was a time when I felt I could not pray.  When I was struggling with the suffering of someone so horribly abused.  Well... two of them really.  One person was at least able to ponder the questions of evil in regard to the possibility of God's existence; the other had been raised as a strict protestant on the one hand and on the other had been "given" to Satan (as a child) - if such is possible.  Suffering, the likes of which I had not known existed, was left for me to grapple with.

In a way I cannot explain, it struck me dumb.  I could not pray.

Oh, I'm sure that I knew deep down that prayer went on within me.  The sighing of the Spirit Paul speaks of.  But I was mute in the face of horror.  I could not pray.

Perhaps this could be understood as a psychological phenomenon - something with a fancy term there's no need to drag in here.  But we therapists know that at times a willing soul, a willing recipient so to speak, can "receive" and "contain" emotions and experiences which a patient is either out of touch with entirely or has no words for - something never integrated within the psyche, even dissociated from consciousness.  So, unconsciously, they transfer this experience, these feelings, to the therapist - there to be felt, to be named, to be integrated and transformed - in order to aid the patient via undergoing a kind of inner purgatory.  Where one endures the desolation, chaos, intense longings and hatreds,  evicted from the soul of another, who simply could not bear them.  Where one is oneself transfigured - to the degree one can bear it.  On behalf of another.

Is this the compassion of Jesus?  Does this help us to understand the Divine Compassion of the Incarnation?  The emptying in order to receive what we ourselves could not bear alone, could not heal on our own, could not accept or understand or undergo?  Does this explain the words of Jesus:
28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ 
Is the yoke between us com-passion?  Where Jesus joins each of us, in shouldering the load, receiving the burdens Himself, integrating and transforming them, breathing his Spirit upon us - the Spirit of Peace, the Spirit of Rest. 

There was a time when I could not pray.  And there came a later time when I felt that my life itself was a prayer.  And even later, I came to see that every single action, no matter how mundane, was a prayer.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Nailed to the Present Moment

I think that all the times I've been powerfully affected by the Presence of God have been times when I was both deeply at peace and also in emotional torment.  It sounds contradictory, but that must be part of it too.  Anguish alone is insufficient.  But accepting it and relaxing into it seems to be key.  Not that you can force anything.  For God is always in charge of such events.  But waiting on God is not some rarefied intellectual exercise.  It wrenches us... down to our roots!

Probably the last time I felt "nailed" was last Fall.  Right before I fell headlong into Orthodoxy.  One hand nailed to a sense that workers were needed in the vineyard (the vast majority of catholics, bereft of spiritual care, reeling from abuse scandals); the other hand nailed to the remnants of authentic spiritual tradition, borne and transmitted through just a few monastic orders.  Indeed, I became convinced the Cistercians, for example, could so easily feel at home in Orthodoxy.  Nailed!  But just one step away.

And while the reason for this post does involve Cistercians, it's really about something else entirely.  Something I have yet to truly plumb in all its depth.  Something I'll likely be pursuing for the rest of my life.  The reason, actually, for the two new blogs (see sidebar - under musical note).  Both blogs spring from one poem.  And like the "burning bush" that came to me as a drawing, that poem holds a lot.

The unlikely setting for my revelation was a massage. 

The unlikely circumstances?  A few weeks after the ill-fated election of 2004.  The dishwasher had died.  Along with my hopes.  We were participating in a consumer boycott.  I was not attending church of any type, but had written this fateful piece of fiction.    I had just recovered from a bad cold that had prevented me from surreptitiously placing said fiction here and there (to aid the boycott).  Never did do that.  Instead, wham!  (Curiously... we never got around to replacing the dishwasher.  Not till last week, just before I felt moved to write this.)

I was lying there, near the end of a long massage, thinking that I needed to recenter my life, myself.  When suddenly came the words:  I'm supposed to be a priest.  Not that I heard a voice.  But I knew.  I knew something so powerful that there and then I soberly reviewed my options.  There was no going back.  I had to go forward in this knowledge.  I was completely and totally relaxed.  Yet entirely focused and alert.

Now I won't go into all the adventures this led me to.  All the soul searching.  Some beneficial wrong turns.  The blessings that came my way.  In pursuit of this revelation.  This inner demand.  Which threw my life into a turmoil.  Turning me inside out and upside down.  But there was no going back.  Nor was there a clear way forward.  Indeed, as I have already said, I will likely be pursuing this for the rest of my life.

So what does it mean?

Well, to answer that I must return to a Cistercian monastery.  I love this particular place.  I may return this Fall.  Lovely drive.  Especially in Fall.  I'll go this time with great peace of mind.  To reflect.  To relax.  Read.  Sleep.  Meditate.  Nice room and meals.  Some grounds to walk.  An austere chapel.  Silence.  I'll see what emerges in that silence.

The last time I found a book.  It was a book that held the answer.  Rarely does such a thing happen.  It may never happen again.  But I picked up a slim volume.  And I read it practically in one sitting.  Because even its preface told me that the answer lay within.  It used the words:  spiritual priesthood.  As the secret of the heart That was it!

Rarely do writers distill their thoughts so succinctly.  But this was an elderly Cistercian nun - serving up the fruit of her monastic life.  In very simple language.  Quoting Orthodox writers on prayer of the heart.   Indeed her greatest mentor, it seemed, had been a Cistercian monk.  A monk who later converted to Orthodoxy.  She spoke of the spiritual life as giving birth to what she termed spiritual being.  And she described that new order of being as spiritual priesthood. 

That was it!  It seemed she had explained me to myself. 

I found confirmation in another tiny book.  A book on liturgical prayer.  Which spoke of "the priesthood common to all believers" and praying the psalms as the prayer of the church:  Sharing in Christ's priesthood;  praising God; and entering into the sufferings of the world.

That was it!  I'm pondering it still.... 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Journey to the Source

Now for something else I've hesitated to write.  Partly because it's hard to describe.  But even more than that, what is my point in doing so? 

It was like a waking dream.  Yet it was more real in some ways than being awake.  Though no waking reality that science could explain.

It happened during a time of great suffering:  Bearing the suffering of some of my patients, especially those who had experienced a lot of abuse.  (I had written poems about that.)  I was having trouble sleeping.  And I kept having this agonizing ache in the middle of my back - right between my shoulder blades.  Mr. TheraP told me I was "growing my wings."

Trust me, if growing wings is like that, you do not want wings!

I suppose I could now be addicted to tranquilizers or sleeping pills.  But that route did not appeal to me.   So I talked with a trusted friend about doing some hypnosis.  He's a safe, caring psychologist.  He too had dealt with victims of abuse.  He used a lot of hypnosis with them - to help them relax.  As did I.  We met only a few times.  Five.  Six?  This may have been one of the last.

Certain memories and books and poems were running through my mind during this time.  One was the story of a Frenchman who had visited India, met with Ghandi, and taken a trip to the source of the Ganges.   Probably Four Quartets.   Memories of the past.  Some of them I've written down here.  It was like a time of digging down into a well.  Seeking my inner depths.  Seeking, I suppose, to access some inner source - for my work, for myself.   Though I didn't know it at the time.

So this particular day, my friend and I had set aside a longer time.  But he'd forgotten.  So we ended up doing two hypnosis sessions, back to back.  Now, if you know anything about hypnosis, you know that back-to-back sessions lead to a very deep trance state.  On the other hand, maybe you don't "believe" in hypnosis.  Which is ok, except you're stuck with this:   Things out of the ordinary are a Mystery.  This is one.

My friend was using "suggestions" to set the scene.  He described a wood and a stream.  However my mind had its own journey to take.  And pretty soon his suggestions did not match what was already happening for me.  I struggled out of this intense state to let him know that.  After that I really can't say whether he spoke much or not.  I must have tuned it out.  Till the last... when I seem to recall, like a voice in the distance:  To come back to a normal waking state.

For me this memory remains vivid.  Colors very vivid.  Intense awareness of nature.  Trees.  Sky.  Sunlight.  Stream.  Water.  Smooth stones on the stream bed.  Myself as if floating in the stream.  Looking up.  Feeling a sense of union with the beauty all around me.  As if united with the trees and the stream and the sky and the sunlight.

Just being.  Like a still center

When suddenly I decided to follow the stream to its source.  A small stream:  Flowing out of a rock.  Black rock.  Polished.  Smooth.  Like obsidian.  And again, suddenly, I decided to go inside the rock.  As if I had to seek this source even more deeply. 

And then the stream was flowing through me...

Like flowing through my heart.  Clear through me.  Clear through where the pain had been.  Pouring out.  Through the very same space that I described in the first poem of this blog.  The place I experienced later as full of stars in a night sky.  A starry sky surrounding me - as far as I could see.  Going right through me.  But that was later. 

And both times, I had this thought:  Now I can stop breathing.  As if I had reached a source, so utter, so beyond our normal conception of life - that breathing, itself, was no longer necessary. 

Now, just at that exact moment, I think my friend must have been talking me back to a waking state - to the here and now.  For somehow I began to leave that experience.   Though it has never left me.  Indeed, it has been reinforced by this other,more recent, experience.  Though they are one and the same, I think. 

I have always viewed this as like a revelation.    To explain it would be impossible.  Yet it taught me something about the beyond in our midst.  About the power of love - flowing through one's heart.  Pouring out.  About the value of risking entry into that source.   Thus becoming part of the source.  Or the source becoming part of you.  It explained to me things written in John's Gospel.  It gave me a kind of reassurance in my work.  A numinous quality beneath my ordinary life.  As in this Icon.

Friday, August 20, 2010

In Memory of PCA

I’ve just received news that a dear internet friend died on August 2, 2010.

PCA was not a religious person.  But I have no doubt that he was a kindred spirit.  Even if he didn’t know it – then. And I trust in the Mercy of God.  PCA was funny, quirky, and cared passionately about other people, the fate of his nation, and the fate of the world.  He would have given you the shirt off his back.  But in the end he learned to receive that kind of thing from others, as he faced a dire illness with no health insurance.  In addition to tears and tributes from many on the internet, he will be missed by friends and family.  Because he was such a private person it apparently took some time and some doing before his family were able to connect with anyone on the internet – to inform them of his passing.

He has receive the amazing tribute of a post put up by the Moderator at TPM Cafe – under his TPM moniker, PseudoCyAnts.

See here, here and here for fractal art by our dear, departed friend.  (Alan, in particular, has done spectacular work at the first link, putting up an entire blog and animating Cy's beautiful fractals!)

Farewell, dear PCA.  Memory Eternal…

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mystery of The Burning Bush

I've always loved trees.  I've always felt every child needs a woods.  Once in college I recall the train pulling away from the station, moving into the countryside, seeing forests of trees, when suddenlyI literally felt I could breathe better - drinking in those trees which seemed to surround me.  

Now comes proof.

I think I always felt a sense of identification with trees.  

And this brings me to something I have hesitated to write about.  An image that came to me nearly 30 years ago.  That transformed as I drew it. That holds so much, I am still drawing from it as from a well. "So deeply held inside"- like a line from that poem I've just linked - that I hesitate to share it.  My only spontaneous drawing as an adult.  And I wish I could show it to you as it emerged.  But I'll describe the experience.  And then provide a link.

I woke up that morning with an insight into myself.  As if, for the first time, I knew myself.  As like a flame.  Like a spark of the Divine.  And I had to put that down somehow.  I grabbed crayons left over from my time as a teacher of young children.  Put crayon to paper.  Allowed the images to flow.  First the flame, then a surrounding darkness, with a circle of fire around the darkness - as if flowing out from it.  And a blue space, then more flames.  And finally a green bush aflame - encasing the inner drawing.  And candles in the bush, like you'd see on an old time Christmas tree.  And tears flowing - as if the bush were also weeping.  Roots of the tree in a river, into which the tears were falling.  And when I looked at what I'd drawn, it scared me.  Like the awe that we call the Fear of God.  And I thought:  "Oh, my god, a burning bush - like Moses!"

And a sort of poem came.  Or it should have been a poem.  I've tried and tried over the years to do this justice in poetic form.  Images in words to express my thoughts/feelings at the time:

Deep down.
Burns darkness.
Flames of Love and Joy.
Into the Burning Bush of myself.
Green and Alive.
With roots sunk deep in the river of life.  
Nourishing itself and other selves.
With weeping tears.
Lights candles for the world.

So here's the link to a photocopy of my drawing.

I knew at the time that the experience was precipitated partly by the experience of learning psychotherapy.   Learning to give up oneself - on behalf of another.   As well as the intensity  of trying to reach one particular person, who was so unreachable.  (How that process opens one up.)  Someone who over and over fogged the "window" through which I tried to reach her - just as we'd nearly cleared a way through.  A challenge on so many levels.  And it also relates to the pain being tapped into when trying to reach someone,  hurting from other relationships and inflicting it on the one who tries to help.  And the suffering inside me - awakened by that.  Suffering transformed.  Into Love.   I came to see all those things.  And more, for of course this also goes way back.  But here I write only of the immediate experience and its connection with personal growth and spirituality.  Indeed, how one's spiritual life is so often catapulted into another dimension, based on experiences of being stretched, turned inside out, challenged in "other" areas of one's life or work.

Recently I came to see all of this in a new and different way.   I was on retreat at a monastery.  And someone mentioned the image of Mary as the Burning Bush.  That was new to me.  So I asked.  In Orthodox Christianity,  it's been an image of Mary in Prayer: "The God Bearer" - on fire with the Spirit.  Like an image of deification or theosis.  What Jean Marie Howe terms "spiritual priesthood" - and interestingly some Icons show Mary in the Orans position - with hands up as in (priestly) prayer.  One of the most profound things I learned was this:  Everything she is called to, we are called to.  Yes!

Now, I'm not claiming anything special for this picture.  Because I honestly don't know.  But it's been a very personal kind of self-portrait for me.  Revealing me - to myself.  Helping me to ponder and wonder.  Perhaps even like a prophecy or a kind of call.  (Though I certainly did not think that at the time.) In retrospect it relates to a lot I've written down in this blog.   So I offer it here - as one more experience that's been a gift.
The Burning Bush itself?   I love that story!  I love the "take off your shoes for this is holy ground" part.  I love the "I have heard my people's cry" part.  I love the revelation of "the name" - the ones Jews NEVER say, saying instead "Hashem" - The Name. 

Long ago I read something by Kallistos Ware.  Well, I read it so long ago that he was then publishing under Timothy Ware.  And it went something like:  Until we experience truths (of the faith) as our truths - we have not yet grasped them.  I think that's true. 

Thursday, April 22, 2010

First Do No Harm

This is a poetic, moving, simple story:  A parable.

A counterpoint to so much bad news:  Good News.  

A tenacious documentary film maker.  An unusual subject:  A former Cistercian monk, who has spent 50 years building a Cathedral - of his own design, by his own hands.   The story is told in simple, moving shots of the old man, walking through his creation. What a poignant testimony to the human heart and soul!

Watch this first
                                    Click on Video for larger version.

     The power of love and devotion.  Life's work of one man. 

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Memory Eternal

"So we do not lose heart.  Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day."        [St. Paul,  2 Corinthians 4:16]
My mother loved picnics.  Especially all day picnics.  Her picnic basket was organized, her picnics planned and executed without a hitch - we kids only aware of days of total freedom at the beach or a state park.  Picnics involved rising at the crack of dawn, Sunday Mass if it was Sunday, driving to the beach or park, perhaps stopping for fresh-made donuts,  selecting our picnic spot long before some got out of bed.

Picnic days were rare times when dad cooked breakfast.  Outdoors.  While mom laid out the treats she had prepared.  Breakfast treats.  Lunch treats.  All-day-long - as much as you could eat - treats.  For us kids these were days of near-total indulgence.

She loved those picnics!  She must have prepared for them meticulously - for days.

The summer she got her driver's license - I think I was 9 - she took us swimming nearly every day.  She loved the water.  She loved swimming, sunshine, beaches, lakes, canoeing.  I bet the all-day picnics reminded her of camping trips to northern Michigan in her childhood.

Those were happy times.  And she had her sad times too.  But so much of what was difficult in her life has now been altered by the transformation of how she met her death.

People die in different ways.  We choose our dying.  If dying marks a life, hers was remarkable!

When it came her time to die, it seemed she met that willingly, indeed at times impatiently.  She knew it long before it came.  And tried to tell us, was frustrated we seemed not to understand, frustrated too at her growing inability to formulate sentences, find words for what she longed to say.  Till the last.  When finally we knew.  When we could let her know it was ok to go.  When she could manage words like:  "dying... good."  She wanted to go home and the word "home" confused her in the end.  I think she tried to tell us she was sorry about that - sorry she was going home and that meant separation.

In the end her dessicated body was nearly weightless, her rib-cage visible.  Like a birdcage with her soul inside - waiting to fly free, on those peaceful last days when her eyes no longer opened and words no longer came, her spirit kept growing and I felt we were communing - soul to soul.

I was moved by that.  The transformation that was happening.  She, in another space.  The world, set aside.  We,  in this in-between space.  Waiting.  As she transformed:  A woman never overtly religious - who had avoided church in later years - whose soul began to shine as she was dying.  Welcoming communion, saintly, even angelic, when I brought it - those last times before she died.

I was not there in her last moments - when the cage opened and her spirit soared - as I was driving to see her that last time.

She looked beautiful in death.

In dying, she had given me her soul.  Yet death held more:  In death, I felt her spirit with me.  Drawing me into that resurrection space she'd entered:  An eternal picnic, communing with the saints.

[Words prepared for her funeral on what would have been her 88th birthday:  4.21.2010]

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Brother Pierre ~ Genuine Shepherd

On this Holy Thursday, when Christians everywhere recall the teachings of Jesus related to servant leadership, on a day when the RCC remains mired in scandal and crisis, I offer this timeless lesson:

Bishops ~ Take a Lesson from Brother Pierre:

Brother Pierre is a true shepherd, someone I have known for 35 years, though we've rarely spoken.  I've always respected his contemplative silence, yet I feel I know him well enough to commend him to you as an example of how to be a good shepherd:

Brother Pierre is not ordained.  He's never given a sermon.  Unless you count the way he's lived his life.  So far as I know he has no shepherd's staff, no visible authority.  But you can learn all you need to know from the photo above and one more below. 

Look long and carefully at this photo.  Look at it like Sister Wendy looks at art:  Set aside your ego and allow the photo to speak with its own integrity to your innermost heart. 

Notice how he interacts with the sheep.  You can see he loves them.  He doesn't lord it over them.  He reaches out to gently hold the lamb.  He looks the sheep right in the eye - because he's kneeling down.  Among them.  You can see the adult sheep trusts him with her lamb.  You can see he's prepared to "feed her lamb".  The sheep listens attentively - for she trusts him.  And he speaks her language.  Like St. Francis.  His tone of voice and his Presence carry the message.

Like David, another shepherd before him, he also plays the harp and sings psalms.

I wish you could hear him play:  "Like the deer that yearns for running streams / So my heart yearns for you, my God."

Mount Savior Monastery saved my soul.  But right now you Bishops are breaking my heart:
You, who seem ever ready to excuse and hide the crimes of "your own" and all too eager to caste stones at the flock.   Instead of showing love and a place at the table, you have forfeited your moral authority.

You're trying to regain that.  But you're going about it in exactly the wrong way.  You're trying to impose your will on people - people who have every right to question that will - tarnished as it is by your flagrant hypocrisy over decades, even centuries, of covering up for predatory shepherds. 

Let me give you a piece of advice as a former teacher of young children and therapist who has worked with many victims of abuse:  You can only exercise authority if you first establish relationships of love.  Unless your flock sees the true face of love (what Paul called, "the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ") you have lost them.  And once even children experience "discipline" lacking in love, they become traumatized, gun-shy, mistrustful - and you have lost them. 

You have lost your trustful flock just as surely as you have lost your moral authority.  And don't be fooled by the sycophants!

There is really only one way to regain trust and moral authority - IF that is still possible.  And that is the way of changing your own hearts and minds.  Changing your tune.  Changing your behavior, your tone of voice, your habit of looking down on people.  Learning instead, from Brother Pierre,  to kneel and look them in the eye.  One by one.  With compassion.  Seeking forgiveness.  Learning to serve and not be served.

Go out among the poor.  Go out barefoot and in rags.  Or make it sandals and one set of plain clothes.  Make it your task to listen.  To love each person you meet.  Recognize your common humanity with each, especially with each suffering soul.  Hear the suffering hidden in each heart.  See the yearning.  Don't preach.  Let your veneration for their suffering be your healing balm.  Your listening heart.  Look with eyes of compassion - devoid of judgment.  Forgive everyone you come across.  Without asking any questions.

And when you can do this - then and only then - might there be a hope of regaining the lost trust, the lost respect of those whom you have betrayed.  Failing that, all you have to offer will sound as empty platitudes, no more than a musical instrument completely out of tune.  Harsh.  Discordant.  Annoying.

[Repost on Holy Thursday: from an original blog of mine at TPM Cafe]

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


She wasn't perfect.  And in many ways she had a hard life.  She grew up during the depression.  As a child she knew poverty.  She knew abuse then too.  She knew loneliness.  And she never meant anyone any harm, though in her insecurity she needed obedient, respectful, dutiful children.  She always tried to care about others.  And she taught us never to exclude anyone:  to share; to be kind and considerate; not to think we were better than others.  Bigotry was not part of her nature and she instilled that in us as well.  She did her best.  Trying to hide her own problems and put on a good front - as best she could - all the while her husband was often away on business trips.  We didn't see enough of our dad, but she tried to make up for that as best she could.

On their 66th anniversary (last month) she didn't comprehend the word "anniversary" or the reason for the tiny cake my father brought to the rehab unit.  She told him to take it with him when he left.  But he ate it.  Bit by bit.  Over 5 days.  Two pieces the first day (one for him, one for her).  And one on each on the following 4 days.  At nearly 93, he thought it was the best cheesecake he'd ever eaten. 

She went downhill quickly.  Falling and gashing her head at the end of January.  A week in the hospital.  A few weeks in a rehab center, where they tried to cure a bedsore from vegetating in front of the TV - as her mind had slowly lost its bearings.  It was Alzheimer's, but my dad simply could not bring himself to see what his children saw so clearly.  Not till after she fell, when it suddenly dawned on him:  "We've lost her." 

The rehab center was way too chaotic for a person descending into the last stages of Alzheimer's.  They were not set up to deal with such persons.  Only with persons on the way to getting well.  When she was on the way to death and dying. 

If only we'd known....

Not till the rehab center, finding her more than they could handle, transferred her to the best psych unit in town, did we get the diagnosis of Alzheimer's.  And one week later, the news that she was dying of it.  There they calmed her down - in a quiet room - with quiet, carpeted hallways.   Told us she needed nursing care.  Next thing we knew, it was hospice care she needed.

I cannot begin to tell you of the kindness and consideration and compassion we received in this last place - the home that nursed her into death.  She, as a resident, only for 6 days.  We as family.  They treated her like you'd treat a saint - if you knew a saint was dying.  I'm not kidding!  And they asked how we were doing too.  Brought us snacks and beverages.  Gave me sheets to spend the last two nights on a mattress on the floor next to her bed.  I got to see the good care, night and day, that she received. 

She was incoherent these last of her days.  Hardly spoke at the end, except to moan now and then - words we could not comprehend.  But she did clearly say things like "dying... good" and "I love" and "I love you" and  "I'm sorry" and "bye-bye" and it seemed that the last night she called my name and seemed to try and moan when she heard my voice.

I never thought it would hit me so hard.  Hearing that she was dying, as I drove home from a few days of retreat, a respite while my brother was in town.  I never thought I would see her turn into a saint, as her body slowly wasted and desiccated, as her mind lost its bearings, while her spirit grew and grew.  Till in the end I felt I was communicating soul to soul.

RIP.  Born:  4/21/22.  Died:  3/23/10

Addendum - via my brother, by Lord Byron:
My task is done -- my song hath ceased -- my theme
Has died into an echo; it is fit
The spell should break of this protracted dream.
The torch shall be extinguished which hath lit
My midnight lamp -- and what is writ, is writ --
Would it were worthier! but I am not now
That which I have been -- and my visions flit
Less palpably before me -- and the glow
Which in my spirit dwelt is fluttering, faint, and low.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Compassion Works!

A lot of people have expended huge time and energy trying to convince us that torture works. That’s the wrong playing field in my view. I mean, where do you go from there? Murder works? Greed works? Rape works? Pillaging works? I mean, where do you stop?

Let’s take this playing field instead: Compassion works. Now here is a place that offers lots of room to move around and go somewhere. First of all, who’s gonna argue with it? Well, maybe some will, but then we can make use of compassion and say. Gee, you don’t want any? What’s with that? Tell us more. (Maybe they don’t feel they deserve it, for example. Or maybe they’re afraid of trusting.

Compassion is something you can give away. It’s not against the law. It’s not immoral or illegal. It can be done without words, whether you know someone’s language or not. No interpreter needed. No interrogators to be trained. Just think – a tactic that works across cultures – and builds alliances. Why, we could send compassion ambassadors around the world, instead of torture advisers. Think of the difference!

Seems to me that every major spiritual tradition is based on the idea that compassion works. And people seem to universally celebrate those who exercise compassion, particularly under the most trying circumstances, such as inside concentration camps or war zones or in the midst of horrible ethnic violence. It’s the voices of compassion, the courageous acts of compassion, in the face of great dangers especially, that we seem to remember and celebrate. Often these people are quiet individuals, who have risen to extraordinary acts of compassion and generosity and courage, simply because they believed it was right and necessary to act – in spite of threats and dangers.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ash Wednesday

A tribute first published here.
RememberingLux Umbra Dei

Ash Wednesday
In the Dharma hall
Few words
Tell it all

Are you
Ashes now?
Bless your ashes
Anoint my brow

Am I
Your Dharma heir?
Sprinkle your ashes
Upon my hair

Ash Wednesday
In the Dharma hall
"No Question"
That is all

We may never know.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Lesson for us All

“Beni Swa Leternel,” they sang. “Blessed be the Lord.”
Thus did the Haitian survivors cope during the night.  After the earthquake and devastation of all normal life.  Singing hymns.

Such is the human need to connect.  With each other.  With L'Eternel, the Eternal Mystery.  They sought the Virgin Heart - the Surpassing Comfort that transcends and inhabits the deepest grief, the greatest shock and horror, Holy Presence in the midst of near-total collapse.  The solidarity of singing.  Of strangers holding hands.   On a starry night.  In a city made rubble.  Blessed be the Lord, they sang:  Beni Swa L'Eternel. 

What a parable to learn from!