Sunday, August 31, 2008

"like they just walked away for a moment"

Eastrose loses its members the hard way some times. People die.

Michael and I went to church this morning in the car. I turned on a tape I had been playing on my own. I wanted Michael to hear it. It was Ava's man by Rick Bragg and also read by the author in a soft, sexy southern voice. It is some of the greatest southern writing you can read or listen to. Almost every sentence has some phrase or image that makes your ears lift with happiness.

We were going to church for the second time in a three day week-end and knew we would go again on the third day. We might not have gone today, there being only so much church a person should go to, but Lee's ashes were going into the ground after the service.

I turn on Rick Bragg and he reads about how his people, hill people from the border of Alabama, Georgia, have the intelligence to forget funerals. He is writing a book about his grandfather and can't get anyone to tell him about the funeral. He says they don't want to remember the funeral and the pale bodies in open caskets. They want to imagine that person is just in the next field, gone for a little walk or drive. It's better that way.

I feel that about Lee. He was a gentle presence at Eastrose. Quiet and good natured, getting quieter every year. He paid attention though, surprising me recently by knowing the year my oldest son graduated from college. Underestimated (perhaps) by all the bright wits we have hanging around our little fellowship. He hunched over more and more leaning on a cane. Maybe he just went down the street, to see a man about a dog. He'll be back later.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Relax, Just Say It: Part 2

In my last post I wrote about meditating on passages that do not completely conform to my own theology. How it was intellectually odd, but quite comfortable, even joyous. Some of that comfort comes from my Enneagram point. I am a Nine, happy as a clam to hold two, three or four competing ideas in my mind at the same time.

Here is Part 2 of Relax, Just Say It:

Another odd thing is the comfort I experience in my meditation and the discomfort I sense in my fellow UU's (Unitarian Universalists) each time the GOD word comes up.

UU's are some of the most tolerant, intolerant folks you will find. They are pretty darn tolerant of exotic religions. Anything that is not Christian is fascinating and important. Our openness to a variety of faith traditions is one of our strong points.

We have trouble with Christianity for two reasons. Reason one, Christianity is where most of us came from, we got shaken out of that tradition, unwilling to say a creed, unable to believe in God or at least THAT God and we are mad about it. Mad the way we are mad at our parents because they didn't love us perfectly. This reason is painful and personal. The anger we feel varies in intensity depending on if our religious training was just wrong for us or actually abusive.

The second reason is because we pride ourselves on tolerance of belief and lifestyle and some brands of Christianity are intolerant. We doubly feel the sting of Christian intolerance because it is against our UU religion and because it is against our liberal political principles. We are mortal enemies of the beliefs of the Christian right. Its hard to separate the religion of the Christian right from its political beliefs. UU's don't always make the effort and neither does the Christian right.

At the heart of all this anger is the God word. Even if you believed in God as a UU you might object to the God word in worship. You might feel it forces people who do not believe in God to worship a God. Saying God, in the context of the traditions many UU's came from, the anger and pain some UU's feel, is tantamount to saying a Creed. UU's can end up in a circle of flight from others anticipated hurt feelings so that they never say God, never come close.

I wonder how good it is for us to have this prohibition. Will we ever be truly tolerant if we cannot say GOD? The fact that anger and pain are so much a part of this prohibition against the word, that we are re-acting against childhood practices makes me think we should be taking a different path. Instead of avoiding it we should move right into it and desensitize ourselves so that we can be religious people and live in the whole landscape of religion.

We should have God training. When my son's were going through sex education one of their teachers had them chant the 'giggle' making words until all the charge went out of them. If you walked by their class during sex ed you would hear 30 sixth graders chanting in unison Vulva or Penis until they were bored with it. We should ask each other 'What do you mean when you say God?' Do you mean, Light, Love, the World, Nature, the Planet, Gaea, a Being that watches over all of us, Truth, Buddha, Tao or Jesus? Its a big word with lots of meanings and I wonder when we are going to get it back?

We should chant it out loud and all together until it becomes our word again and loses the charge of anger and pain that makes us shy away from it.

Relax, Just Say it: Part 1

I've written that I do daily passage meditation. It's now my spiritual practice. I haven't been doing it very long, but its power and sturdy compassion, make me think I will do it my whole life.

The passages I meditate on come from all the worlds great religious traditions: Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Islam and Earth-based. They don't always conform to my own beliefs. The old testament God is not my Lord really, but when I am meditating on Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd I say each word of that Psalm.

I'm meditating not evaluating. I say in my mind "the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want." I try not to have side conversations in my mind or any kind of cross talk.

I remember that there were some rebellious thoughts generated at first, especially when I would meditate on the passage "He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies." What is that all about, why is the Lord concerned with my enemies? It reminded me of the irony of two football teams praying for victory from the same God. And more tragically about the war in Iraq with Christian and Islam soldiers praying in competing forums to the same compassionate Lord.

I'm uneasy with the idea of a personal God but the Sages are not. God weaves in and out of the passages I meditate on; sometimes He/She is very clearly a being to adore while in other passages They/He/She/It are portrayed as an intrinsic quality as austere as my pantheistic faith. The God talk makes me uneasy while at the same time I feel utterly at peace and at home.

It's what the soul wants really. It wants to adore, it wants to let go, it wants to fly into ecstasy. The soul, our psyche, understands the language of relationship intimately, and knows what it means to cleave, to bind, to connect with another. The soul is not a theologian! The soul is more like a drunken teenager dancing with a cute stranger on a Saturday night!

A friend of mine who maybe does, maybe doesn't, believe in God, told me "I started praying. It just works better if I talk to God as if he is there. I don't know if he is, but I calm right down. I pray regularly."

Monday, August 11, 2008

Faith Journal: Epiphanies

What do you believe if you are a Unitarian Universalist? The usual, sloppy UU answer is that you can believe anything you want. Well, let's hope not. You don't have to believe in a creed, thank goodness, or Jesus Christ is Lord of All, or even that there is any Lord of All. That leaves a big wide field to walk around in. Its no wonder that UU's want some kind of short cut when talking to others in this culture of the sound bite. They may even want a sound bite for themselves!

It's work to put together your own theology. Please forgive me and other UU's like me, if we haven't always done as much work as we should.

One of the pieces of my personal spiritual philosophy, is a belief in the importance of epiphanies.

I cultivate epiphanies because they are my version of a primary, spiritual experience.

An epiphany is when your world looks different after you have had an insight. A whole area of your personal world view that stood straight up before now is toppled over and points in another direction. An epiphany is Urban renewal of the soul.

Epiphanies can be dramatic. When I had the epiphany that I didn't believe in a personal God, the world was suddenly a very different place. And not necessarily a better place. In fact it was colder and lonelier. There was no going back on it though. It was a true epiphany.

In college I took a class on Existentialism and it fit my new thinking about God. I read Albert Camus's The Stranger and the Myth of Sisyphus. I learned more about this territory of no God. It was exciting, but it filled out the contours of my mind without changing it. Existentialism is pretty grim stuff but I took it in and accepted it. What else was there if there was no God?

It was another class, a hybrid English class called "What is Man?", that gave me my next epiphany.

This time we read more Camus, a book of short stories called Exile and the Kingdom. We also read Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces. I don't remember the stories well or much about Hero with a Thousand Faces. I do remember them transforming the scraped earth landscape of Existentialism into some kind of garden. I didn't return to a personal God but I did, through these wonderful stories begin to see the richness of interconnection.

The epiphany I had was that Existentialism looked at the world as if there was nothing human but individual existence. If you run a buldozer over a forest you don't have a forest anymore. The forest existed though, even if it's now destroyed. Just because you CAN get down to bare earth doesn't mean you should or that bare earth is any more real than the forest that was there originally.

I developed the conviction that the connections we have with others are real and holy even if they end, break, sometimes are false, or superficial. The sum of them hold the world together. Not only are these connections holy but we can chose them, we can increase them or we ignore or deny them.

It's a choice, like the Existentialist said, they just didn't believe that you could choose a world with color, sound and a thrumming heart.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Connections to Random Events

Summertime and the living is easy, except that the news is full of random death and madness. Yes, it's random, but there are connections to me.

It starts with a UU church in Knoxville invaded by a madman with a gun shooting parishioners attending a children's theater production. I hear it on the radio and start the rationalization process, the distancing process, before I even get all the facts.

He is mad, I think, the same thing happens in post offices -- its just chance that its a UU church. But I am a UU, and I can't imagine a safer place than my church.

Next a terrible plane crash on the Oregon coast where a light plane crashes into a home filled with a vacationing, extended family. Its bad enough the empathy I feel because of the entire innocence of the victims. They aren't taking risks by playing on logs in the surf. They are sleeping in vacation bedrooms, eating breakfast and getting shoes on for a walk on the beach. It turns out that I have a long ago connection to the family. I knew their brother, a beautiful young man who died twenty-five years ago in a climbing accident. The facts and the sorrow of it just sit in my mind, unexplained and terrible.

Then another crash, a helicopter crash taking down nine summer firefighters. They are young and vital men with their whole lives ahead of them. They have no direct connection to me this time except they are from Oregon, but it echos and amplifies the earlier tragedies.

I meditate this morning saying a passage I've been using from the Tao te ching. While I meditate I am aware of my mind trying to find an explanation for all this random death and violence. I also know its a cheat. Meditation isn't the same as thinking. Rumination is a classic distraction.

There is a line in my passage about how a being "takes on a physical body, let's circumstances complete it." Although the Tao is full of compassion for the whole world, it feels remote and not a comfort. I can't reconcile this old wisdom about the cycle of life with the immediacy and lose of all that young life. Sometimes there is no explaination.


I've been meditating daily with ony a few slip ups for a couple of months. I have a meditation group to keep me motivated (Eastrose on Tuesday nights). We do Easwaran's passage meditation. Easwaran gives a pretty indepth discussion of how we avoid going deep into meditation and allow distractions. There are lots of ways.

My typical distraction is to fall asleep. The passage I am meditating on often appears in my mind as it does on the page. As I go through the passage the words light up one at a time. When I start to fall asleep the lines reassemble in different order. They dangle like melted clocks in a surealist painting or end abruptly. These are all signals that its time for me to breath deeper and sit up straighter before I start to snore.

But yesterday morning the mind did something charming to distract me. A Hummingbird swooped right in through my passage. It hovered, as hummingbirds will, in the center of my mind allowing me to admire its brilliant blue and green colors. And then, when I regretfully realized that it was a distraction, it darted away.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Faith Journal: the Creed

I haven't had many psychic experiences. This might not be one, but it felt like one.

When my son's were 6 and 8, Michael and I took them to a Smith family reunion in Ohio.

We had a good time. It was a bit more stressful for me than Michael because I was meeting a lot of new people. The Smith's were welcoming, though, and I enjoyed myself. The boys were about as cute as they could be. I was proud to show them off to this family of strangers.

Still I was starting to look forward to going home. We had one more event, a Catholic mass that was being put on for the Smiths. They were a pretty religious family. They had nuns in the family. Michael was from the 'fallen away' side but everyone else was still very Catholic. This particular mass was in honor of Michael's Aunt and Uncle and their marriage of 50 years. The family whispered that they weren't doing so well. Indeed, they only lived a few more years.

I felt snappish and a little false in my nice clothes. What is the difference between honoring another's traditions or smothering your own feelings? Attitude, I guess, and mine was deteriorating in spite of my best intentions. The idea of sitting through a mass finally gave shape to my own suppressed feelings of rebellion. It had been a long vacation spent in small talk, in group settings with new people, in projecting my own booster feelings of pride in my small family. I was starting to wear out.

The chapel filled with the Smith clan.

The mass began, and the old ritual took hold of me. I know the mass. A childhood of Sundays puts it at the synapse level. I started to relax. I marveled at my good memory. Since this was a special family Mass for older Catholics, part of it was in Latin. The Catholic church stopped doing the Latin Mass when I was six years old and yet I can still remember the words. I said all the words to all the prayers, trying not to think too much, as if they were mantras, or nursery rhymes.

My mind drifted while we said the creed. ‘I believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ A jarring thought jumped into my head, without any invitation, "The Creed is a test. In the old days if you didn’t say it you were killed!’’ The thought came in with full force and I was stunned to silence.

I stopped my simple recitation. I had never thought of it before; they put the Creed in the mass long ago so the priests could check on the faithful. People have probably died because they wouldn’t say these words.

Right in the middle of this lovely Catholic ceremony I began to shake. I vividly saw, the people burning. I smelled the fear and the smoke. I sat down and grab my husband’s hand. "The creed's a loyalty test! How can they have something like that in worship". He turned and smiled at me, not hearing a word.

Even if he had heard me, how could I have explain such a peculiar vision.

I sat through the rest of the service quietly not moving with the service or saying the words. What had taken place? The Catholic church is so old that even the shaggiest old horror can mellow and lighten with time. The creed doesn't have power anymore except as an element of worship, but at one time it did. For a few moments I had felt the church’s bloody history.

After the Mass we went to a party for Michael's aunt and uncle. I shook Uncles’s hand and he smiled vacantly at me. It was all a bit much for him, poor old man.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Pantheist or religious Naturalist

Yeah, I am such a reader these days. I just finished Standing in the Light, My Life as a Pantheist by Sharman Apt Russell. Its a spiritual biography that I bought from the author at a reading at Powells. I couldn't stay away when I read about it in the Oregonian.

My life as a pantheist, I thought, maybe that is me! Indeed. It seems to be. A pantheist believes that God can be found in the world and only in the whole of the world. Russell considers herself a scientific pantheist in that her understanding of science gives her a greater feeling for the intricate ways that the world connects.

Standing in the Light is a pretty good book. Beautifully written by a careful writer who admires and often writes about science. She alternates chapters on her own life living in rural New Mexico on the Gila River, with very informative chapters on Quakerism, the Stoics, Marcus Aurelius, Spinoza, the Transcendentalists, Taoism. The chapter notes alone are worth the price of the book with its list of books I should read and now want to.

Her presence in the book is rather restrained as if she wasn't quite willing to be the center of attention. If I have a criticism, and I don't really, it would be say more about you Sharman! Still, since I have met her, I can see her walking on a mountain mesa road, reading Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. (Yes, she walks and reads at the same time).

She mentions two websites I plan on checking out: (the Institute of Religion in the Age of Science) and (The World Patheist Movement).

Oh, what the heck! -- here is a list of books that Russell inspires me to want to read:

The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance by Anthony Gottlieb. This is one I wouldn't normally even consider but Russell calls it "engaging and stimulating " in her chapter notes. Really!

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. trans. Gregory Hays. I will read it in bed however. It must be good because Russell confesses a crush on Aurelius.

Drawing down the Moon by Margot Adler

Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain by Antonio Damasio or Spinoza: A Life by Steven Nadler. Well, it is a stretch that I would ever read a biography of Spinoza, but if I do, I will for sure brag about it here.

Goatwalking: A Guide to Wildland Living and a Quest for the Peaceable Kingdom by Jim Corbett. This sounds wonderfully strange.

Upheavals of Thought: the Intelligence of Emotion by Martha C. Nussbaum. Another one to brag on if I read it.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I've read this but not since I was in my teens. It has to read differently now.

Deep Ecology by Bill Duval and George Sessions

The Dream of Earth by Thomas Berry or his The Great Work: Our Way into the Future

Buddha by Karen Armstrong and The great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions also by Karen Armstrong

The Tao of the West by J. J. Clarke

Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia by Stephan Harding

Books by James Lovelock -- the founder of the Gaia theory

The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough. Who has, by the way, a name that I envy. She calls herself a religious naturalist, not a pantheist. It kind of goes with her name. Religious naturalist is good enough, I don't need some fancy unusual title for my religious impulses, I can imagine her thinking.

More from Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, maybe The Essential Transcendentalists ed by Richard Geldard