Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Eve, 2010

Spiritual Practice.  It's not just having a spiritual philosophy, or praying and meditating as needed, or worship.  There is something deliberate, disciplined, and muscular in a spiritual practice.  I can deliberately set aside a time each day to maintain my spirituality just as I deliberately set out for a 20-minute walk each day to maintain my body or sit down regularly at the piano to maintain my skill at playing.  Practice is also a way of learning, developing and perfecting skills.

Practice makes perfect.  Spiritual practice develops spiritual prowess, we assume, just as physical exercise develops physical prowess.  Starting simply, practicing what we know, moving up at the right time to levels of greater skill, and repeating our actions until they become automatic are elements of practice we recognize from our student years.  Given the right goals, the right feedback and the right genes, they can lead to expert status.

But just how do goals, feedback and genes apply to spiritual practice?  What, exactly, is my goal?  And where do I get feedback?  In the west we do not typically seek spiritual gurus or spiritual trainers to tell us whether our spiritual practice is right or left of the mark.  How do we judge whether we have veered wildly off the path?  The spiritual journey, by its nature, is inner and individual.  As some clever westerner has said, "If there is anyone else on your path, it is not your path."  But where does this leave us?

I once had a spiritual practice of  "listening" and writing every morning, because I was in a spiritual retreat that required it.  I got better at writing, but I'm not sure how I did at listening.  At another time I practiced yogic breathing to become more aware of "that which cannot be thought."  I got better at breathing, but I can't judge the quality of my venture beyond thought.  Hours spent on my knees talking to God got me calloused knees, but it's hard to say what else.

One reason for the immeasurable nature of spiritual experience is that the experiencer tends to disappear.  The ego that thinks it needs to practice and get better becomes more porous, less defined and defended, liberated somewhat from the illusion of itself.  In the middle of spiritual experience is the vastness and "isness" of being, an awareness of the miracle being enacted throughout creation at this moment, and of being at once at the center and the circumference of that miracle.  I see that writing is itself a spiritual exercise, as is breathing, driving a car, shopping for groceries, washing dishes, and spending time on my knees.  In the middle of a miracle, there is no way to avoid right action and no need for spiritual practice, is there?

Am I less and less concerned with myself and more and more willing to let go of opinions and desires?  Is my sense of self expanding to include others?  Is the Miracle permeating everything I do?  Then I think my spiritual practice is bearing fruit. 

Monday, August 10, 2009

My Religion

It is my belief that we are each responsible for developing our own religion - our own approach to a transcendent or ultimate truth. I choose a religion constantly in development, with stories and symbols and practices that seem meaningful and can create for me, at times, "religious experience." Sometimes my religion has led me into community. At other times it has led me away, into solitude.

It is a religion I follow, like a cat might follow a person who smells of food. The more I follow, the more it moves. The closer I get, the more it expands.

I used to abhor Christianity because of its meanness - not just the small and narrow self-righteousness of some of its followers but the meanness of its God, who required a bloody sacrifice to make up for "original sin." Such ideas remain abhorent to me and I reject them. I also reject the notion of two domains, one sacred and invisible, the other profane and at hand.

This is it. I do not claim to know what "this" actually is, or why there is an "it" at all, but "it" is holy and I am part of it. I notice also that we are impermanent, coming into being mainly as food. Life feeds on life. If the universe and all existance is itself holy, then its processes, including the recycling of its energies, are holy. Where can I find stories and symbols that make meaning of this distressing idea?

I find them, if I look with care, in the Christian Eucharist. A man (or a god, take your pick) is broken and fed to those who follow. He suffers and dies, as we all must, for the rest of us. His blood, the Blood of Life, is spilled and drunk in a Holy Communion - a communion shared everywhere by all things. We come and we go, broken and fed to each other as one body, the body of Christ, the Universal Embodiment in which we live and move and have our being.

Where are we, hurtling through a curved space on an outward arm of a spiral galaxy with a "singularity" at its heart, flying away from all other known things in a miracle of light, color, form, and forces we only begin to comprehend? We are in a miracle, the only miracle, and enough.

I am a result of, and a part of, and a partaker in this miracle. I belong to it, am given to it, and participate in it literally and symbolically as I eat the body and drink the blood of life. For mine, too, will be given. My religion teaches me to give my life gladly, to find the gift meaningful, and to receive the gifts of Life with thanksgiving and celebration.

How Long?

Franny the cat did recover, mainly because I was willing to give $450 to the vet. Her brother Zooey got sick and recovered too, free of charge, because I gave him some of Franny's medicine.
So we are all around a bit longer, and we assume this is a good thing. We continue to stoke the metabolic fires, all the while feeling the press of time and the shortening of our days.

Life moves anyway, with or without the substance I call "me." My family, whom I moved to Florida to be near in my old age, is moving to London in a few days. So much for my plans. They matter only to me. Once again I am reminded that the future, as well as the past, is only a story we tell ourselves - how we wish it was or will be. This moment, though also fleet, is at least holy. "What God hath to give he continueth to give." Why die of grief? The world goes on, offering itself each moment to my imagination if I will but see.

If I jump into the chasm before me, will I fly? The answer is yes, but not forever. How long depends partly on the depth of the chasm, partly on my own buoyancy. But ultimately, how long is not the right question. The right question, for me, is "Can I unbind myself from fear and self-interest and fly freely like a kite, or a leaf, or a helium-filled balloon, or a star?"

Someday I will. Why not start now?

Monday, April 27, 2009

God as Partner

There are differences between prayer and meditation and contemplation, and no one seems to agree on exactly what they are.  We all seem to agree that prayer is talking to God and that meditation and contemplation involve listening, but beyond that there is little common ground. The opinion that calls to me this morning is that meditation is something we do, like an active verb, and contemplation is something that is done to us – a passive verb.  As in passion.

Sometimes I sit and pray and wish for some answer or some sense of the presence of a God who seems to be out to lunch.  Other times, I am flooded with ideas, mysterious as dreams, flickering like schools of silver fish that disappear as quickly as they come.  Rarely, I do not pray.  I am instead “prayed.”  

I just finished The Shack, a book I didn’t want to read and didn’t like at first but read anyway because I enjoy my book club and wanted to be part of the discussion.  By the time I was half way through, I was caught up in the story enough to forgive the author for what I considered to be his sins of style, and by the time I was done, I felt differently about God and me.  The book is not the only cause of this shift in perspective.  I have also been participating in a retreat program for the past eight months, taken generous daily doses of prayer, meditation, and contemplation, and forced myself to write things down.  I have also spent my life wondering.  It all adds up.

Whether or not God can be thought of as an actual person, or three persons, or thirty persons, or anthropomorphized in any way at all, there is a relational way of being with God that feels more like a partnership than like being with a parent.  There is a way in which God suffers with me, God hopes with me, God works with me.  I don’t have to protect this God from the worst in me like I would protect a parent.  And there is also a way also that I suffer with God, hope with God, work with God.  

I have been fumbling with this idea awkwardly for years, struggling against my own idea that God had to be King of The Universe, thinking I was struggling with God.  As late as January of this year, I wrote in response to a reading for my retreat, “My God remains stubbornly enthroned, all-knowing and all-powerful, ever-active although infinitely complex.”  Something has happened to me, though, in working through our readings, in striving for intimacy with the very human Jesus and what happened to him, in writing about this struggle, in reading aloud what I have written.  In going back over my own words, I find my reference to that Bible passage I can seldom read without weeping:  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not.”  I realize I think of these as God’s words, and that they do not sound particularly kingly.

Yesterday I stumbled across the term, process theology.  In reading about it, I came upon the articulated idea that God does not have to be experienced as omnipotent in the sense of being coercive.  Instead, God can be said to have the power of persuasion.  I’m sure I heard the click of tiny tumblers falling into place.  “Therefore I will now allure her,” God says, “and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.”  I have always known this.  I have simply failed to see what it means.  God is that which wants to gather me under her wing.  God is that which calls to me, draws me, lures me out into the wilderness, or into relationship, or up from the bottom of the boat.  God is a push of wind, and I have only to learn how to trim my sails.

Easier said than done, of course, this trimming of sails.  It’s a changing universe, and the wind is the most changeable thing of all.  But maybe we’re all in this together, God and us, God filling our sails with possibilities and all of creation setting sail to follow what lures it, and God also in the boat with us, enjoying a good sail.  Maybe that’s how it is.  

I wonder if we are alluring to God also.  I wonder if God finds us utterly adorable beyond all reason and against all better judgment and works in us all, and as us all, and alongside us all as we suffer and love and live and die.  Maybe, too, God looks out from our eyes at the starry heavens and swoons, along with us, at his jeweled net of creation, flung out so generously everywhere.

Physicists tell us the universe is not made of things, but of events.  That not just God, but the whole universe is a verb, unfolding in fractals of recycled energy – raindrops depending from ferns depending from trees, shining.  Of sons, lovers, husbands, friends – their bodies and mine – all of it given back, generous as perfume, each bit like dandelion fluff in a stiff breeze, carried away beyond imagining.  Life, surprising.  Death, terrifying.  God absolutely not supporting the status quo, and not kingly at all.

Maybe God is calling, calling like a song, a song that if you once hear it you can sing, and God will sing it too.  Maybe God is a lover asking over and over, “Do you love me?”  Asking us to touch his wounds.  Asking us to feed his sheep.  Sending us sheep we’ll find utterly adorable beyond all reason and against all better judgment, so that feeding them becomes a deep and fulfilling act of love.  So that the sacrifice we make for each other is not weighed against the benefits received.  So that the benefit we receive is to be broken open and shared, and to become part of a universe that is made of love.

Today (I am almost embarrassed to say this) I felt the presence of the risen Christ, who stepped quite easily into the space in front of me.  This presence came at a hard time and took from me some of the burden I had been carrying all day, and I understood that the pain I bear is not born alone.  The risen Christ joins me and those I love in our suffering and work just as Jesus of Nazareth did, and is just as vulnerable to this world as we are.

For me, this sense of God as intimate, imminent partner and friend is new.  It comes as an unexpectedly passive way of being with a passionate God, a God who is drawn to me, who seeks me out even in my sorrow.  God experiences me in a way I could not have imagined yesterday morning.  Whatever we choose to name it, God draws closer to me because he wants to.  It’s a comfort and a consolation and a passion.