Category Archives: religion and spirituality

Being “Quickened” into a Soul

Poet Claire Kelly quotes another poet, Emily Carr, who noted, “Without movement, the subject is dead.” Carr recognized that to be human…and an “alive” one…the subject must be alive, functioning in a dynamic fashion. She recognized that it is possible to be physically alive, and yes to have a “subjective” life, but at the same time be “subjectively” dead. She echoed the illimitable wisdom of Shakespeare whose Hamlet described a heart that could be “full of penetrable stuff” if it were not “bronzed o’er with damned custom.” By use of the term “penetrable” Shakespeare was describing the vulnerability that is present when one is “subjectively” alive And this lovely poem by Ms. Kelley provides a beautiful parallel of the vibrancy of a “subjectivity” that is fully alive.

But, let me utilize my “literary license” and introduce the term “soul” to this notion.  When one’s subjective experience is quickened by what I like to describe as “the Spirit of God,” a soul is born, a soul that is in unity with others and with the whole of God’s creation. This soul not only “knows” things about life but “feels” them in the depths of his/her heart and at times can only “glory, bow, and tremble” as poet Edgar Simmons described it. At this point thought and feeling are working in tandem and some version of the Incarnation has occurred, described by W. H. Auden as “flesh and mind being delivered from mistrust.”

But it is much easier and less painful to live on the surface of life and not bothered with the “intrusiveness” of God’s Spirit. But, that is just another way of saying that it is easier to live oblivious to reality and not allow Reality (i.e. “otherness”) to “mess up” one’s pristine Ozzie and Harriet existence. For, “god” or “God” is jusord we throw around to capture the experience of the Ineffable which is always found on the boundaries of life and if we disallow boundary violation…that is if our heart is not “penetrable”…we cannot experience the Ineffable.  Here is the beautiful poem by Ms. Kelley:

IN THE TORSO OF A GREAT WINDSTORM
(Odds and Ends, 1939)

The wind makes everything alive….
Without movement a subject is dead. Just look!
—Emily Carr

Put your hand over a flashlight,
watch it glow faerie pink. Picture—
lit from inside—a belly torch,

the backdrop—
knot of spruce tree organs: liver, kidneys,
bundle of intestine, stomach—
cool blue and green foliage hiding enzymes,
bacterium, acids.

That exact texture of pulse,
quiver, musculature connected
and contained, skyline and dirt grouted
together, a vista of
inner skin, the underside.
Airstream gale whipping
the pinprick stars into dashes,
molars into canines, evolution
of the Spartan firmaments. A breezy muse,
that gust of inspiration.

Now look at the actors erect at centre stage, see:
skinny veins with plump tops,
or—zooming in—synapses of birch foregrounded.
Holy trifecta, three ideas
announcing skyward:
home, joy, hunger.

“Judgment” vs “Judgmentalism”

In Shakespeare’s marvelous play, Hamlet, Laertes is grieving for his sister Ophelia who he then sees as demented and laments that she is, “Divided from herself and her fair judgment without which we are pictures are mere beasts.”
Shakespeare understood a dimension of judgment that is often not considered, that being that “judgment” is merely a decision or choice. For example, cultures always evolve a legal system in which miscreants stand before a judge or tribunal for some misdeed and there the community tells him/her, “We do not approve of the choice that you made on such and such occasion.” The collective thought reflects the decision of what is “good” and “bad” for the commonweal of that tribe. In this hypothetical illustration, a community makes a “choice” and exercises power, declaring, “we will not abide that behavior” and will then impose consequences even up to the point of death in some cultures. (This brings to mind another observation in the same play, “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”)

But, on an individual level…such as with Ophelia…we also exercise judgment and make choices all of which have consequences. But Shakespeare noted that Ophelia’s judgment was impaired so that her world was rigidly bifurcated between people as “pictures” or “mere beasts.” He was describing persons who see people only through two prisms—the extreme of a one dimensional idealized fantasy such as a “picture” or the other extreme…also a fantasy…a “mere beast.” Shakespeare recognized that we are infinitely complicated creatures and that our perception of others has to include the nuances between the two extremes. Yes, we are “pictures” but also “beasts” but also everything in between. And, this same impairment of judgment influenced Ophelia on the issue of “to be, or not to be” leading to seize the “bare bodkin” and take her life.

This brings to my mind the Christian notion of judgment and “judgmentalism.” Many Christians are proud that they are not “judgmental” and will piously announce this fact. However, that itself is a judgment!  Judgment is intrinsic to the human experience and we cannot help but make judgments if we have any degree of functional ability; and, come to think about it, we do so even without that level of ability! True, Jesus said, “Judge not that ye be not judged” but I don’t think that He meant that we should be so naive as to think we never exercise judgment. Jesus was merely saying, “Hey! Sl;ow down. When you are so quick to see the mote in someone else’s eye, take pause and realize that there is a beam in your own eye.” Yes, there are many times when we must exercise judgment and take a stand but if we find that we are “taking a stand” and making moral pronouncements a lot of the time, we might take pause and look closely in the mirror. “What we see is what we are.” Just to exercise judgment does not make us “judgmental” but when we find ourselves standing in judgment often of others, we might take pause and consider that “What we see is what we are” I’m learning to do this myself and the experience is not very pretty!

Shakespeare’s Literary Grasp of Life

Shakespeare could see deeply into the human heart because he had seen deeply into his own.  Matthew Arnold might have had him in  mind when he noted, “The poet, in whose heart heaven hath a quicker impulse imparted, subdues that energy to scan, not his own heart but that of man.”  Shakespeare avoided the pitfall that Jesus warned of when he described people, “having eyes to see but seeing not, having ears to hear but hearing not.”

Shakespeare saw life as a story, a narrative that is always already underway when we arrive on the scene, taking our role on what he called the “stage of life.”  Seeing life as a story, he then was given the literary license to interpret the story and with the astute vision described earlier was able to plumb the depths of the human heart.  He did see the ugliness of life for he had seen the ugliness in his own heart and life, leading one of his characters to conclude that life was a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”  This particular line uttered by Macbeth is very bleak and appears to be nihilistic but not if you consider the body of Shakespeare’s work.  Sure, the “nothingness” is present in life but that is only the dimension of life involved in finding its meaning and purpose.  Shakespeare knew that if you do not see the “idiocy” (or lunacy) of life…including your own…you end up taking yourself and the whole of the human enterprise too seriously.

Space, Silence, No-thingness, and Spirit

Caritas
(St Andrews Cathedral)
These stones speak a level language
murmured word by word,
a speech pocked and porous with loss,
and the slow hungers of weathering.
And there, in the broken choir, children
are all raised voice, loving the play of outline
and absence where the dissembled god
has shared his shape and homed us.
At the end of the nave, the east front stands
both altered and unchanged,
its arch like a glottal stop.
And what comes across, half-said
into all that space, is that it’s enough
to love the air we move through.
(by Rachael Boast)

The “air we move through.” That captured my imagination as it brought to mind the notion of “space” that people like Eckhart Tolle and Richard Rohr speak of, words which can be thought of as referring to the domain of “spirit.” For, “space” is the context in which we breath and live but it is a context that is only “there” but we can never apprehend it with our rational mind. It is the foundation of this ephemeral world that we take for granted but which is ultimately specious, though infinitely important as an expression of what I like to call the Divine or the Ineffable. It is the domain of the heart, the Spirit, of Life which gives meaning to this “dog-and-pony show” that I refer to so often. I heard a lecture by Richard Rohr recently in which he used the term Silence, a different name for the same phenomena, and describing it as “the safety net which lies underneath the tight-rope walker, those of us who walk the razor’s edge.”

I now want to juxtapose the above poem with one by Eugene Mayo that I have always loved, entitled, “This Wind.”:

By E. L. Mayo

This is the wind that blows
Everything
Through and through.
I would not toss a kitten
Knowingly into a wind like this
But there’s no taking
Anything living
Out of the fury
Of this wind we breathe and ride upon.

 

Be Here Now!

This admonishment used to make no sense to me and even used to perturb me for I knew it came from “one of them there damn hippies” though at that point in my life it was probably “dang” rather than “damn.” And, of course it is so meaningful to me now because it is not about “sense” (or reason run amok) but is about “presence” which is a more fundamental dimension of existence than reason. Most of my life has been spent in absence, in not “being here now”, but being immersed in my own little cognitive grasp of the world, a self-imposed prison like the one most people spend their whole lives in.

At present moment I think I “be here now.” I have just awakened and have taken my perch for “bird theater” with my cup of coffee, awaiting my three puppies to join me—two dachshunds and my wife. The darkness will lift shortly and I will again watch the birds engage in their ritual frenzy at the feeders and will be taken with the beauty of the moment. I will “be here now.” I often think of the words of Jesus at this moment, and apply a bit of literary license to his description of “the birds of the air,”  noting that they do not fret and stew but merely go about each day of their life “birding” the world. And I also often recall a beautiful poem by Wendell Berry who described finding “peace in wild things” when beset by despair, wild things who do not “tax their lives with forethought of grief.”

Be here now.

Rumi Visits Me Again!

Poet Gene Derwood once noted, “Big thoughts of got us.” I think she had in mind the drifts of ideas in 1950′s American culture but the observation also has personal application for me as I realize “big thoughts” have often “got me.” I have always loved to read and to study, spending lots of my early adulthood as a “professional student” in which I read voraciously in fields which had nothing to do with my actual career. I love to think. I am carried away by “big thoughts” and use this WP forum to share some of them and to discourse re my impressions from discovering these thoughts.

And, with this internet and blog-o-sphere I can explore sources from around the world and also meet and engage in dialogue with other men and women with a similar curiosity. So I continue to “hunger and thirst after” these “big thoughts.” There is even a sense in which I’m an addict. Psychologist Gerald May noted decades ago that addiction to “thinking” is not uncommon and even my “guru”, Richard Rohr, has noted that he himself is plagued to some degree with this malady.

But, please understand, this is not a “confession” or lamentation. This is just a personal observation, a disclosure of an issue that I wrestle with. I do believe there is something beyond these “big thoughts” which would satisfy this addiction, something which I prefer to describe as a Something or even a Someone! My spiritual mentor, Rumi, addressed this issue with me several mornings ago, sharing with me: You are quaffing from a hundred fountains; whenever any of these one hundred yields less, your pleasure is diminished. But when their sublime fountain gushes forth from within you, no longer do need you steal from these other fountains. I was taken aback! Seven hundred years ago and,immersed in a different spiritual tradition, he understood my dilemma. He understood what several of you have been telling me and what I already knew myself in some limited way. “Big thoughts”, even if from “big” fountains, are not the Source! Again I quote the Buddhist wisdom, “The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.”

I think that actually I’m afraid of this “gush.” Look what it did to the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road! I’m just not wired for that kind of neurological tumult. But, I take comfort in the wisdom of another one of my confidantes, W. H. Auden, who often reassures me, “The Center that you cannot find is know to the unconscious mind. There is no need to despair. You are already there.”

The Malady of Christian the Faith

The unacknowledged malady of the Christian faith has surfaced again leading to tragedy. A 36 year old former mega-church pastor, Isaac Hunter, has committed suicide after a sex scandal. Another dimension of this tragedy is that his father…also a mega-church pastor…is Joel Hunter and he is a confidante of President Obama. Within the past year the son of mega-church pastor Rick Warren also committed suicide after a long-term battle with “mental illness.” Within the past year the pastor of a large, prominent evangelical church in Hammond, Indiana went to prison for having sex with a teen-age parishioner. And, from my youth on, I can recall the recurrent issue of “sex scandal” and “financial impropriety” and other misconduct surfacing in the clergy. When very young, it would usually lead to a sudden decision of the pastor that “the Lord” was leading him to pastor a different church, with the truth coming out much later. And, of course, we cannot overlook the horrible sexual-abuse scandal that the Catholic church is still dealing with.

My point here is not to point an accusing or shaming finger, or to snicker at the apparent hypocrisy but to express profound sorrow that men with deep spiritual direction in their life succumb to the lure of such poor choices that they wreck their lives and the lives of those around them. And, as in the present case, the anguish is so intense, that sometimes they even despair of living and take their own life. My concern is that these men have demonstrated that an essential element in faith has been missing in their life and that is an acknowledgement and embracing of dark impulses that are always present in all of our hearts. The problem is not in having these impulses but in refusal to acknowledge them and, when beset by them and the temptation to act on them, having no one to whom they can “unpack their heart with words.” They cannot disclose this shadow side of their heart because the Christian faith they have been taught does not permit them to acknowledge this darkness. Their faith is often a sanitized version in which “human-ness” is denied in the effort to trot out each day of their life a squeaky-clean “Christian” persona. They glibly quote Paul, “I will to do good, but evil is present with me,” but do not fully appreciate the extent of that evil; for the real “evil” is the evil that lurks in the “thoughts and intents of the heart” which needs to find the light of day somewhere.

This most recent suicide brought to my mind the anguish that sexuality can bring in a man’s life. And, I don’t care how “spiritual” you are or how “noble” or “good” you are you will continue to be a sexual creature and that will always involve the temptation to…shall we say…err and might include impulses with which one is uncomfortable. As Woody Allen put it, “Of course sex is dirty, if you do it right!” But whatever impulses surfaces in our sexual life they are just that…impulses…and don’t have to necessarily be acted on. Someone in the position of spiritual leadership needs to have someone to talk to about them. But my central point here is that in some faith traditions, opening-up about sexual matters will not be permitted. Because the real intent of this type of faith is to provide a denial system, a facade that will allow the individual avoid reality; and that type of  person will inevitably be leading his flock to live the very same kind of life.

Christian faith…or any faith…involves honesty and the first step in honesty is to admit that we are not honest. We are born with blinders on and, when we see this, we will still have blinders on. But, if we can accepted the “possibility” that we have blinders on, we can be given pause, and perhaps be a little more human and less “pious.” Yes, we will then later discover more blinders…and more, and more. But that is merely to discover that you are human. That is merely to learn that, being a mere mortal, you tend to see only what you want to see.

 

I “Discovered” America!

Yes, in 1952 I “discovered America” although I also soon realized there were a lot of other “Americans” here already! Edgar Simmons once wrote, “We rattle the world for our babies” and early in 1952 the annual “rattle” took place and I fell to the earth in the sticks of central Arkansas.

It was a “discovery” and adventure; and continues to be. This is an amazing world that we live in. For example, at this very moment I am sitting in what I call my “bird theater” and watch junkies, sparrows, titmice, cardinals, and two or three varieties of woodpeckers raucously queue up for their moment at the bird feeders, cavorting about in the blowing snow as they wait their turn. Suddenly I am a child again and can “feel” on some level again the marvelous beauty that the world has for children before they get fully ensconced in the mundane. That was the time when my heart was still made of “penetrable stuff” and had not been “bronzed o’er” with the “damned custom…(that is) proof and bulwark against sense (or feeling).”

Now, of course, I employ my “literary license” here to recall these moments as there was no cognitive apparatus there to “remember” them with. That contrivance would come later and with it would come a more routine, mundane appreciation of the “beauty” I saw…and felt…at that time. And I use the word “felt” deliberately for early in our life we are a “feeling state” and are constantly soaking up the impressions which will stick with us for life and which will formulate the core of our identity, the roots of that unconscious domain that shapes our life. And, now, I do sense that I have some awareness of that phase of my childhood, some intuitive grasp of how the world appeared back then.

And on that subject, I don’t think I really liked much of the world…or at least the “human” part. I found all “those rules” baffling and overwhelming and preferred to stay safely tucked away in my little uroborus. I mean, there were so many of “those rules” and how could I ever get them “all” right; and, of course, being a budding narcissist, I had to get them “all” right, didn’t I? And, I might add that I’ve spent my life trying furiously to accomplish this goal but have found enough Grace in recent years to give up the quest, to humbly realize just how silly, vain and “narcissistic” it was in the first place. I really think that I felt so “judged” by the world I was discovering, and judged so disapprovingly, that I had to be “right” to compensate and the only way I saw that I could do this was to master all of the rules. Meanwhile, I was also immersed in a Jesus culture in which I was nearly almost daily about God and His mercy and forgiveness; and though I came to say I believed it all, I actually didn’t believe a word of it, did I?! The only way I felt I could be forgiven was to “be right” and that meant to follow the “rules.” When that facade began to fade decades later, I referred to it as the loss of my, “ruined, rural righteousness.” And, I might add, that in spite of what I was being “taught” by my “Jesus culture”, the subtext of that teaching was a dictate to do just as I was doing—Be Right!

Come to think of it, there is another character flaw—I’ve always had a hard time focusing on what was going on, preferring to focus on what was going on beneath the surface, in the “subtext.” I almost wonder if I had some version of ADD?

The Privilege of the Few

Institutions that maintain soothing contact between men under unexpressed conditions and within unadmitted limits are certainly indispensable for communal existence; but beyond that they are pernicious because they veil the truth in the manifestation of the human existence in illusory contentment. (probably Walter Kauffman)

Culture was a pyrrhic victory for mankind. This “fig leaf” did accomplish its original purpose in that it covered our existential nakedness and allowed the development of what I often call this “dog and pony show” that we live and breath in each day. And without this contrivance we could not live together even as well as we do. We would still be a bunch of even smaller tribes always warring with each other as opposed to the present arrangement in which the number of tribes is actually quite limited though the violence and potential violence is lethal.

But our “illusory contentment”, satisfying as it might be, always comes at the price of excluding someone that we might describe as “the other” or “them.” Our smug satisfaction always rests on the backs of those who have been denied admission into the club.

There are many dimensions to this problem but let me focus on merely one, the often discussed “haves” versus the “have nots.” And technically, this poses a personal problem for, relatively speaking, I am one of the “haves” though that is the case only in comparison with the human tribe as a whole. Relative to the hordes who live in poverty, my middle class existence would have to be described as “plenty” and I would have to be considered one of the “haves.” But trust me, I am not wealthy! Everything is relative.

So, how do we solve this problem? I understand that we could solve the world hunger problem, for example, if we wanted to so why not? Part of me remembers the admonishment to “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor” and I’ve heard of those who have done so. Well, I’m not inclined to do this and do not feel it would be the appropriate thing for me to do. But I do think solving this particular part of the “have not” problem would cost me something and I can honestly say I would be willing to incur that “something” even to the point of discomfort. How could I insist on maintaining my level of comfort when millions and millions of people in the world live in squalor? But the same question needs to be considered collectively, not just with my country, but with the world and all of us would have to begin to think in terms of the human collective instead of our local tribe. We would have to begin to answer affirmatively the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

But this would require a profound paradigm shift in world consciousness. It would require that we create some space around our tribal identity and begin to see that the “other” is human also and deserves a quality of life that we could probably help bring about. And, I’m not saying that we would have to, or even could, give up our “tribal identity” but only loosen its grip on ourselves just a little, just enough to see that other people, and other tribes, are human also. A tribal identity is just another way of saying an “ego identity” and these dimensions of reality are imperative. But another dimension of reality is also imperative, that one of “space” which unites us all, an inclusive “space” or “field” which many have termed “Spirit.” Rumi put this so eloquently when he noted, “Out beyond the distinctions of right doing and wrong doing there is a field. I will meet you there.” He was noting that beyond the distinctions that we draw with our ego or tribal identity there is a “space” and if we are willing to embrace this space…or allow it to embrace us…we can make connection with other people.

Let me close with the wisdom of a kindred spirit, my brother in Spirit, W. H. Auden, who noted:

What except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
Into the snarl of the abyss
That always lies just underneath
Our jolly picnic on the heath
Of the agreeable, where we bask
Agreed on what we will not ask,
Bland, sunny, and adjusted by
The light of the accepted lie?

More Perspectival Ruminations!

Perspective fascinates me. Even as a child when I was being taught a very rigid perspective of the world, questions would arise from time to time about this perspective and I would receive a pat answer should I dare to pose the question. My usual response, not being very daring at the time, was to accept the pat answer and resign to the fiat of the bromide, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” I learned that when I heard that bromide, it was a way of saying, “End of discussion.” I also learned that I could use the same bromide myself later to end discussions but that contrivance worked only as long as I remained ensconced in that insular little world, an insularity which began to crumble when I went to college.

I have often quoted here, “We can’t have a perspective on our perspective without somehow escaping it.” (I think it was the philosopher Ricoeur to whom I should attribute that bit of wisdom.) When a perspective on our perspective first dawns on us, it is the advent of meta-cognition and a Pandora’s box is often opened. Pat answers will no longer suffice.

Einstein once noted, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” This wisdom is valid on an individual and a collective level. Whatever it is that ails us, if we try to rely only on “figuring it out” we will only be stewing in our own juices in the long run, much related to Shakespeare’s observation about the human dilemma being that it feeds “even on the pith of life” when it opts for this self-referential cocoon. At some point we have to explore new horizons, venture out beyond the grasp of our cognitive grasp on the world, and that always involves faith of some sorts though I do not insist that it be called “faith.” Some of you might, for example, prefer a term like “courage.”

In my own personal life as well as in my professional life as a clinician, it was always important to realize that the ultimate issue in addressing the woes that beset us from time to time is trust. My natural disposition is to “figure things out” for I am very cognitively oriented and, yes, that is putting it mildly! But life is ultimately a Mystery and we can never “figure it out” and have to trust that Mystery at some point which usually involves trusting the life process itself and an individual or individuals in our life. It is easier to “trust” a “Mystery” or “God” rather than to trust that Process or Person in terms of flesh and blood. It is much easier and less risky to trust our noble and lofty ideas than to trust another human being.

Trust often means being willing to learn to look at life differently, to lay aside outdated, maladaptive behavior and thought patterns. For example, this change might be as simple as accepting the old bromide, “The glass is half full” and not “half empty”; or perhaps deigning to see the world as basically good as opposed to “deceitful and desperately wicked.” But it is very difficult to dislodge outdated perspectives and we usually fight the loss of these perspectives “tooth and toenail.”

I just ran across an observation by the philosopher Michael Polanyi which is very relevant, “Major discoveries change our interpretive framework. Hence it is logically impossible to arrive at these by the continued application of our previous interpretive framework.” I’m suddenly reminded of an old spiritual ditty at invitation time in my youth, “Let go and let God have His wonderful way. Let go and let God have his way. Your burdens will vanish, your night turn to day. Let go and let God have his way.” That was such a moving song, tugging at my heart so deeply, but I never realized that it would eventually mean even letting go of my faith as I knew it at that time in order to find a deeper more meaningful faith, one less steeped in the letter of the law, and one which would leave me more human. It would mean finding the courage to explore a new “interpretive framework.”