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.