Wednesday, December 12, 2007

More Fun with Gospel Comparison

All three synoptic gospels have a version of the instruction to take nothing, but go out and heal. But there are some interesting variations in these passages (note: translations from the RSV). For example, is payment justified and should only worthy households be entered? And of course, there is the increased foaming at the mouth in historically successive gospels - as I pointed out in my last post.

(As a reminder: the historic sequence of the canonical gospels is Mark some time between 67 & 73 CE, Matthew and Luke between 85 & 90 CE, John between 90 & 100 CE. The Gospel of Thomas could be as early as 60 CE or as late as 90 CE. And the authentic letters of Paul predate all these gospels, being written over a period from 48-62 CE. For summaries on such stuff see:’s page on the gospels)

In bold are some variations of interest.

Mk 6.7-11: “And he called to him the twelve, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. And he said to them, ‘Where you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. And if any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them.’”

MT 10.5-16: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying, give without pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food. And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it, and stay with him until you depart. As you enter the house, salute it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomor'rah than for that town. Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Lk 10.3-12: “I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace be to this house!' And if a son of peace is there, your peace shall rest upon him; but if not, it shall return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages; do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you; heal the sick in it and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.' I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town.”

This instruction is in Thomas, but it has a very different cast:

Thomas 14: “Jesus said to them, ‘If you fast, you will give rise to sin for yourselves; and if you pray, you will be condemned; and if you give alms, you will do harm to your spirits. When you go into any land and walk about in the districts, if they receive you, eat what they will set before you, and heal the sick among them. For what goes into your mouth will not defile you, but that which issues from your mouth - it is that which will defile you.”

Fascinating! The disciples are warned against all these standard spiritual practices - fasting, praying and giving alms – and then told to worry, instead, about what they say.

On another note, the saying that ends Thomas is in Mark and Matthew, but in the canonical gospels it is put in such a different context that it implies something different.

In Mark, the saying follows a diatribe against Pharisees that begins when they challenge Jesus. (Mk: 7.5) “And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?’… (7.14-15) And he called the people to him again, and said to them, ‘Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.’”

The treatment of this is very similar in Mathew. The passage opens as the Pharisees challenge Jesus (Mt 15.2) “’Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat...’ Eventually Jesus answers with the saying so that it becomes a judgment against them. (15:11) ‘Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.’”

Oh those Pharisees - shamefully worried about what they eat when they should be worried about what they say.

Yet in Thomas, the same saying is an instruction to the disciples to beware of defiling themselves with their words.

For your own gospel comparison, there are print books with similar passages side-by-side, or look at The Five Gospels Parallels site.

Monday, December 10, 2007

More On Shaking Dust and Radical Gospel Messages

My last post was a message I heard as I did lectio on the phrase "shake off the dust that is on your feet" from Mark 6.10-11: “Where you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. And if any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet…”

Following is a little analysis of the way various gospels interpreted the saying.

All three of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) have a version of this saying, but they interpret it as a call to judgment. Perhaps a message of radical non-reactivity was simply incomprehensible.

They were caught up defending their burgeoning cult to synagogue traditionalists, and surviving the Roman world after the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus represented incomparable “Good News,” and many who happen on a spiritually illuminating theology think that after everyone gets it, all suffering will end. So it is easy to condemn anyone who refuses to hear. What kind of benighted fool chooses to reject the end of suffering?

I have no idea if the historical Jesus actually said anything about shaking dust. If he did, I have no idea what he meant. But one sign that the judgment interpretation is a gospel writer’s add-on is that in historically successive gospels, the language gets more vitriolic. (The historic sequence of the canonical gospels is Mark 67-73 CE, Matthew and Luke between 85 & 90 CE. John was last at 90-100 CE.) To whit:

Mk: shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them.

Mt: shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomor'rah than for that town.

Lk: say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.' I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

Radical non-attachment grows out of radical unconditional love–a love that equally embraces all, like the sun that rises "on the evil and on the good" (Mt 5.45)–a love that is absolutely and radically nonviolence. Such love eschews even the violence of setting out to "fix" others. Because that means seeing those others as “broken” and therefore inferior–with the fixer automatically assuming a superior position as less broken.

So, how does radical unconditional love interpret the gospel admonition to shake dust?

Speak where your words promote growth in compassion and understanding. If your words aren’t heard, merely leave–without anger or shame–trusting that this also is God and not your concern.

(If you'd like to do a little parallel gospel comparison of your own, try The Five Gospels Parallels site. A great site to read of scholarly debate on dates, authorship, etc. is at

Shake Off the Dust: A Gospel Message of Radical Detachment?

Mark 6.8-11: “He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. And he said to them, "Where you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. And if any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet…”

In lectio on this passage, I was caught by the phrase “when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet.” As I let this phrase roll through my consciousness, this is what I heard.

“Take nothing…stay where you are received… if you are not received, don’t sweat it, but go on, taking nothing with you: no anger, no hurt, no blame, no regret, not even the dust on your feet. Come away clean, without attachment of any sort.”

It is a quiet act, shaking dust off. It is not rancorous in any way. Shake the dust from your feet: don’t piss and moan endlessly on about it, and certainly don’t get caught up in righteous indignation or vengeful wrath. But as you leave each place or person, shake off every grain of ill feeling.

In The Hidden Gospel, Neil Douglas-Klotz says that the words translated “good” and “evil” are more accurately translated “ripe” and “unripe” - for example in the gospel saying that “good” trees bear “good” fruit and “evil” trees bear “evil” fruit. How different to read, “The ripe tree bears ripe fruit. The unripe tree bears unripe fruit.”

It is not good for the gardener or the tree to try forcing fruit out of an unripe tree. The gardener needs to let go and move on, assuming the fruit of that tree will be ripe for others. Similarly, if mine is not the gospel for someone, he or she is none of my business. Who am I to judge another person's spiritual path?

So much for being rejected. What of the experience of being well received? It’s s-o-o-o easy to become addicted to thanks and praise. Yet, as my favorite desert Amma, Syncletica said, “Just as wax melts in the presence of fire, so also does the soul disintegrate in the face of praises.” I can’t be fully present if I’m busy manipulating events to get my fix of thanks and praise.

“Shake the dust off your feet.” The message is not about those who hear me or don’t hear me. It is about me: the student, the disciple. St. Antony suggested starting each day new, bringing no memory of any success or failure from the day before - to avoid feeding the demons of pride, anger or despair. If I want to live in the reign of God, I must practice letting go of everything from my encounters – the good, the bad, the sources of pride, the sources of shame, even the dust.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Writers Block. Arrrrggggh!

In my recent struggles with writer's block, I’ve occasionally thought of blogging about it - while lying in bed unable to get up. So when Shelby Meyerhoff of Looking For Faith pointed me to a post about it on Facilitating Paradox, I thought, “Now’s the time.” … Either that or leave an annoyingly long comment on the other blog.

When I was 30 years younger, I smugly (and often) declared, "Inspiration comes to those who work" - 'cause I found that if I went in the studio (sculpture) every day, I never ran out of ideas. In fact I always had more ideas crowding my brain than I could possibly carry out. But if I sat around waiting for the days I felt inspired before working, my creative energy dried up.

Would I have eventually hit artist's block if I hadn't switched first to science and then to writing? Don't know. (BTW, I eventually went back to sculpture - though it's up and down. Some years I let myself have 4-8 hours a day at it. Some years only a few hours a week - which is not enough to fire any kind of inspiration).

However, I've been in bad writer's block (on my monasticism book) since mid-summer. I still have lots of ideas yammering in my head, I just can't seem to drag the words out at the keyboard. When I try, it feels like a slog through waist deep mud... frozen mud. Neck deep.

So I guess my youthful insight still holds... I don't work and I don't feel that inspired energy pulling me forward... and it is so exhausting otherwise - like pushing a freight train from behind.

But I still have ideas... And get inspired about work other than what I am *supposed* to be doing.

Which is where blogging came in.

The thing is, when writing my book was first blocked last summer, my blog took off. I may not have been writing what I supposed to write, but it still felt like work. And it was really good to connect with others via the blogosphere.

(O.K., here is another, irrelevant, personal tidbit. I started computing in the days of card punching. Yes, I punched cards. Then fed JCL to a mainframe in the days before personal computers. In fact, I wrote my Master's thesis using JCL on a mainframe (80 characters to a line, etc.). I liked the mainframe/terminal set-up because of the community feel - whether at a terminal in a large, buzzing computer room, or in my own department - a university department was very proud if it had it's own terminal to the mainframe in some closet-sized room. I disliked personal computers - they were entirely disconnected then. So I have savored various reconnections - first email, then internet newsgroups, now blogs.)

Then a few weeks ago ALL writing was blocked. No blog. No book.

I still had ideas - lying in bed or walking the dog. Only the keyboard felt like it was wired to give off bad shocks. I couldn't touch it.

My blocks are almost all emotional and about bringing my words into being, and myself into public scrutiny. Last summer I signed with a well-known agent and my book (proposal) went on the market... and my book writing dried up (baring what turned out to be a few abortive restarts). Not at all coincidentally, the blog died when I said I put out those women's voices posts.

(Is this a kind of problem women have more than men, do you think? Or is this a gender-neutral dysfunction?)

Anyway... Emotional work ensued.

Blocks dissolved (at least partially, and for now).

My blog is back, and my book writing is (a little more tentatively) taking off again.


Friday, December 07, 2007

Women’s Voices II+: More Julian of Norwich

A 14th century, English mystic, Julian of Norwich faces a Universalist dilemma.

Why Doesn’t God Prevent Sin?

Julian wrote, “I wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented. Therefore, I mourned and sorrowed, without reason and discretion.” Then Jesus spoke with “complete tenderness, showing no manner of blame,” saying, “It is behoovely that there should be sin, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,”

So Julian concludes, “it would be a great unkindness to blame or wonder on God for my sin, since [God] doesn’t blame me for sin.”

Also, “I saw not sin: for I believe it has no substance whatsoever, nor any part of being, nor could it be known but by the pain it causes. And thus pain is something, for a time: for it purges and makes us know ourselves and ask for mercy.”

And so she repeats Jesus’ answer: “Sin is cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Yet, “…because of the judgment of Holy church... I understood that sinners sometimes deserve the blame and wrath [of God], and I could not see these two in God…” Instead, “I saw our Lord God blaming us no more than if we were as clean and as holy as Angels in heaven.”

Greatly troubled, she “could have no rest for dread that… I be left in ignorance about how He beheld us in our sin.”

She asks God for help crying, “Good Lord, I see You who are very Truth; yet I know in truth that we sin grievously every day and deserve to be blamed. I can’t stop knowing Your truth, but don’t see You blame us in any manner. How can this be?

“…My longing endured, while I continually beheld Him, and yet I was impatient, and in great straits and perplexity, thinking: ...if we are sinners and blameworthy, Good Lord, how is it that I cannot see this true thing in Thee...?

She “cried inwardly, with all my might seeking unto God for help, saying thus: Ah! Lord Jesus, King of bliss, how shall I be eased? Who shall teach me and tell me that me need to know.”

It was then that “our Courteous Lord answered by revealing a wonderful example of a Lord that had a Servant:

The Parable of the Lord and the Servant

“I saw two persons… a Lord and a Servant… The stately Lord sat in rest and in peace; the Servant stood before his Lord reverently, ready to do his Lord’s will. The Lord looked sweetly and lovingly upon his Servant, and meekly sent the Servant to a certain place to do his will. The Servant not only went, but raced off, running in great haste for love of doing his Lord’s will. And so he fell into a ditch and took great hurt. There he groaned and moaned and wailed and struggled, but he could neither rise nor help himself in any way.

“And of all this, the worst hurt for the Servant was loosing the comfort of his Lord. For he could not turn his face to look upon his loving Lord, who stood near to him, and in whom there was complete comfort. But having become feeble and unwise for a time, the Servant turned his mind to his feeling and endured in woe.

“I marveled how this Servant might meekly suffer there all this woe, and I looked carefully to learn if I could perceive in him any fault, or if the Lord should assign to him any blame. And in fact there was none to be seen. For only the Servant’s goodwill and his great desire was cause of his falling, and he was as diligent and as good inwardly as when he stood before his Lord, ready to do his Lord’s will. And so thus, continually, his loving Lord with complete tenderness beheld him.

“I understood that the lord who sat in state in rest and peace is God. I understood that the servant who stood before him was Adam, that is to say one man was shown at that time and his fall, so as to make it understood how God regards All-Man and his falling. For in the sight of God all men are one man, and one man is all men.

“This man was injured, made helpless and feeble, and his understanding was confounded, because he was distracted from looking on his lord, but his will was preserved in God’s sight. I saw the Lord commend and approve him for his will, but he himself was blinded and hindered from knowing this will. And this is a great sorrow and a cruel suffering to him, for he neither sees clearly his loving Lord, who is so meek and mild to him, nor does he truly see what he himself is in the sight of his loving Lord.”

All Created Being is the Size of a Hazelnut:

“[God] also showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… I thought, ‘What can this be?’

“My question was answered: ‘It is everything that is made.’

“It seemed to me that it might suddenly fall into nothingness, it was so small…

“I was answered… ‘It lasts, and ever shall last, because God loves it...’

“It is necessary for us to know the littleness of creatures in order to judge them nothing, so that we may love and have the uncreated God. The reason we are not fully at ease in heart and soul is because we seek rest within [the littleness of creatures], and pay no attention to our God, who is Almighty, All-wise, All-good and the only real rest.”

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Women’s Voices II: Julian of Norwich

Julian was a 14th Century, English mystic with an uncompromisingly universalist vision. Hers was a joyful, compassionate God of infinite, mothering love - in direct opposition to the prevailing Catholic doctrine that plagues, wars and other suffering were an angry God's punishment for sin.

Julian saw that we cause our own suffering out of ignorance, sin has no ultimate reality, and there is no blame in God. Confused by the discrepancy between this and Church doctrine, she asked for help. Jesus replied with her most famous quote, “It is behoovely that there shall be sin, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner [of] thing shall be well.”

Icon by Robert Lentz

Julian lived from 1342 to 1416. Her early life is unknown - her name may come from St. Julian’s, the church in Norwich, England where she was an anchoress. At 30, she became deathly ill and had a number of visions. She recovered and wrote a book about it: Revelations of Divine Love. Julian reflected on her visions throughout her life, extensively rewriting her text. She was the first woman known to have written a book in English.

An anchoress lived her entire life in a cell attached to a church. It was a simple life, but fairly comfortable - with servants and a garden - and not at all isolated. Julian must have had access to a good library. She gave spiritual advice from a window opening near a major street - from which she could also hear any news.

Julian lived in the midst of plagues, wars, famines and religious persecution. Witches were burnt at the stake. Peasants rioted over unfair labor and tax laws. The Catholic Church was split among warring popes - the most powerful was in France, with whom England was at war. Just around the corner from her anchorhold, followers of John Wycliff (who translated the Bible into English) were burnt. Julian must have heard the crowds and smelled the charring flesh.

Julian risked being accused of heresy, herself. She seemed aware of this danger as she opens her book by insisting that she is an unlettered woman, just writing what she saw, and that the mistakes of an ignorant woman be forgiven. It must have worked. Despite the radical universalism of her visions, she escaped persecution.

Some quotes from the Revelation of Divine Love:

"Our Soul is made to be God's dwelling place, and the dwelling place of our Soul is God… And I saw no difference between God and our Substance: but as is all God."

"God is… the Ground in whom our Soul stands, and… the means by which our Substance and Sense-nature are kept together... For our Soul sits in God in complete rest, and our Soul stands in God in complete strength, and our Soul is kindly rooted in God in endless love."

"Only Pain blames and punishes, our courteous Lord comforts and sorrows."

"I it am. The greatness and goodness of the Father: I it am. The wisdom and kindness of the Mother: I it am. I am that which is highest. I am that which is lowest. I am that which is All."

"Before God made us, he loved us, which love was never slaked nor ever shall be. And in this love he has done all his work, and in this love he has made all things profitable to us. And in this love our life is everlasting. In our creation we had a beginning. But the love wherein he made us was in him with no beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end."

Links to some of the many web sites on Julian of Norwich.

Introduction to Revelations at the Camelot Project, sponsored by the University of Rochester.
On Julian at The Spiritual Stars of the Golden Age
Julian Norwich at the Anthology of Middle English Literature
The God's Friends Website: Julian of Norwich, the Showing of Love (translations by Julia Bolton Holloway) and its contexts
The Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Revelations text online

Saturday, November 10, 2007


I said I’d post on spiritual women’s voices to help people who want to undo their bias for citing men’s voices. I put out one post and had two others almost ready to go. Then my blog went silent for over three weeks.

What happened?

I had a long-running virus left me too exhausted to do anything but what was absolutely necessary. Only something in that explanation doesn’t ring true. I also entered a slump over my book not selling. I have a good agent who I like a lot, but I thought this was a much more marketable book than it now looks like, and I got VERY discouraged… Yet that isn’t the whole of it either.

Not being heard is my #1 childhood and personality issue. That it is still a big issue for me was made painfully apparent when I literally lost my voice.

A week ago last Thursday I woke up and… NO SOUND! At first it seemed kind of comical - although very bad timing as I teach preschool music classes on Thursday. I figured I could get by with act-out CD songs, using printed signs and getting a parent to read the storybook. The parents were very tolerant and we got through it.

However by Day Three nothing was comical. In fact, I was swamped by rage – a five-year-old’s, kick-em, hit-em, scream and cry, unbearable frustration rage. When I let myself be present to it (during a long insomniac episode at 3:00 a.m.), grief welled up.

In my family everyone talks over everyone else. Everyone minds each other’s business – loudly – whether those others are present or not. Everyone insists that they ALREADY KNOW and so take opposing opinions very badly. An example: driving to my sister’s wedding rehearsal dinner, we argued for 30 minutes over whether some birds we passed were ducks or geese. Thirty minutes. Ducks or geese. Yikes.

And everyone is constantly shouting, “Just listen! Why won’t you listen? Just shut up and listen to me!”

I spoke little through elementary school, and in my 17th year stopped speaking altogether. (I dropped out of high school so there were no teachers to notice.) If no one could hear me, why bother with talk? I was in my thirties before I learned to speak freely.

Voicelessness. My family issue.

Yet I’ve always craved silence and I loved the monastic silence.

In his Rule, Benedict says to prefer silence and even “refrain from saying the good things.” There is really something in that. Often I ached to speak to “fix” someone – which made me superior and the “fix-ee” inferior. Or I ached to speak to put salve on those old experiences of silencing - shouting, “I am here. See me,” like an urban youth tagging subway trains.

So what if it felt like I was being silenced - like I'd been thrust back into my childhood? I wanted to know how to tell when talk was “necessary, true and kind,” as a Buddhist teacher said of “right speech.” Maybe being forced into silence would be a way to learn. Besides, I longed to rest in the sense of God filling me, being already so completely known and heard, I could listen openhearted without a need to speak. Then the difference between being forced to be silent or choosing silence would melt away (I thought).

But my monastic experience, and my recent voicelessness, points to a problem with that program. In At the Root of This Longing Carol Lee Flinders talks about four major spiritual practices that are also the very tools of patriarchal repression. One of these is silence. This leaves women (and other repressed groups) with a strange and terrible conundrum. How can we get spiritual growth from practices that our cultures have used to destroy our souls?

We need silence to hear the voice of our inner being. But how do we nurture silence without falling into repressive silencing?

Voicelessness. It’s been an interesting three weeks.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Martha, Mary and Peter: The Rest of the Story

from a lectio on Luke 10: 39 - 42

Martha was overloaded preparing a feast for Jesus and his followers at her home. It was galling when Mary, her sister, sat lazily at the feet of the Rabbi rather than helping as she should. So Martha went out and complained, asking Jesus to send Mary to the kitchen.

Jesus answered, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things but one thing is needful. Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Yet Jesus felt compassion for Martha. He understood the burden of feeding all of them, and her resentment. He looked into her eyes and smiled. Suddenly, Martha realized the Rabbi loved her house-holding self as much as Mary’s student self, and all her resentments evaporated. For Martha, this was enough. As she truly preferred to work, she gladly left Mary to be the student. But Jesus didn't want Martha to bear her burden alone. His followers had pledged to share one another's burdens without regard for caste, gender, or other worldly status-markers. So he asked two of his male disciples, Levi and Peter, to go help Martha.

In the minds of some of the men, trouble had been brewing. With this event, the trouble overwhelmed them.

Levi was a humble man of gentle heart. He delighted in any chance to serve and felt no slight at being sent to the kitchen. He went joyfully. Peter, however, was a man of pride. Among the disciples, he felt he was owed first place, and the respect of a leader. He deeply begrudged the rebuke, as he supposed, in the Rabbi telling him to do women’s work.

He thought, “It is not my place to be in the kitchen. Even if there were no women here, one of the lesser disciples should have been asked. To be made to work with one woman while another sits carelessly at the Rabbi’s very feet! It’s blasphemous and an insult; it makes me unclean.”

But he would not speak against his teacher’s direction. So putting on a calm countenance, Peter did the work gracefully, grumbling only in his heart.

Yet there a seed was planted against all women - both those who worked meekly under the limits set on them by Torah law, and those who presumed to study and grow in wisdom. He turned his bitterness especially against Mary the Magdalene. He already distrusted her because of the way she'd given her wealth to the Rabbi and his disciples - gathering of her own influence almost the entire material support for them.

How dare Mary spend such long hours alone with the Rabbi, even if it was at the Rabbi's bidding? It was impossible that a woman might grow in spirit beyond him. Her influence must be a darkness and a distraction, perhaps a satan testing the Rabbi’s authority. Peter was sure Mary had somehow used her dark, womanly wiles to influence the Rabbi into punishing him with kitchen work.

So, deep and hidden, the seed of resentment was planted and grew. Like a small pebble in a free flowing stream that first catches a few twigs, then a large branch, then another branch, and soon a great dike has formed, with the clear water backed up behind. Only a twisted trickle, a tumultuous tumble of water escapes. It still seems clear and sweet, yet it is incomplete and therefore distorted. Peter had set his heart against all women, to combat them like the adversary. And in this he was successful. Many generations had to live and die and struggle until the dam he began started to loosen.

Yet inevitably, the resentment of pride, grown from over-love of one man for his flesh, will be seen for the small thing it is and washed away. And so, one day, will all pride of flesh be washed out of the dealings of the peoples of the world.

© R. Elena Tabachnick 2007

Monday, October 08, 2007

Women’s Voices I: Lal Ded

Lal Ded was one of the great Indian mystics. She was born in 14th century Kashmir during a time of social, economic and religious turmoil. Political dominance was shifting among three great religions: Hinduism, Sufism and Buddhism. With direct, ordinary language, Lal Ded wrote teaching songs, or Vakhs, that spoke to adherents of all three religions. She had many names - demonstrating her appeal across religions. In Hindi, she is Lal Ded (grandmother Lal); in Sanskrit, Lalleshwari (Lalla the yogini); to Muslims, Lal Arifa. Her sayings are still in common use in Kashmir.

Her story: Lal Ded was married at twelve to a neglectful husband. At twenty-six, she left her husband and her abusive mother-in-law to follow Shiva. She took to wandering the country naked - singing, dancing and teaching. Not even remotely a physical beauty, Lal Ded was known for a big, floppy stomach hanging down as in this picture.

Like many women mystics, Lal Ded had a personal, love-devotion relationship with the divine. Yet at the same time, her words reference an experience of enlightenment or unitive dissolution/loss of self such as is common in Buddhist texts. Also in common with other mystics, her writing demonstrates a universalist outlook (although without using that label, of course). In the embrace of divine love, all is one, and none condemned - which naturally leads to tolerance of religious differences. Finally, Lal Ded talks of the struggles of the spiritual path, as well as the rewards - both describing her experience and admonishing students.

Here are a few of Lal Ded's poems. Links to 138 more, as well as other material, can be found at Kashmiri Saints and Sages.

I searched for my Self
Until I grew weary,

But no one, I know now,
Reaches the hidden knowledge
By means of effort.

Then, absorbed in “Thou art This,”
I found the place of Wine.

There all the jars are filled,
But no one is left to drink.

* * * * * * * * *

To learn the scriptures is easy,
To live them, hard.
The search for the Real
Is no simple matter.

Deep in my looking,
The last words vanished.
Joyous and silent,
The waking that met me there.

(These two: Coleman Barks, tr. in Jane Hirshfield, Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women)

* * * * * * * * *

Laughing sneezing, coughing, yawning,
Bathing in sacred pools,
Going about unclothed throughout the year,
He is about you all the time-
In all these forms recognize Him.

* * * * * * * * *

A wooden bow and rush grass for an arrow:
A carpenter unskilled and a palace to build:
A shop unlocked in a busy bazaar:
A body uncleansed by waters holy-
Oh dear ! who knows what hath befallen me ?

(These two Jayalal Kaul, tr. in Jayalal Kaul Lal Ded)

* * * * * * * * *

Let them jeer or cheer me
Let them say what they like
Let good people worship me with flowers
What can any one of them gain I being pure?

* * * * * * * * *

When my mind was cleansed of impurities,
Like a mirror of its dust and dirt,
I recognized the Self in me:
When I saw Him dwelling in me,
I realized that He was the Everything
And I was nothing.

(These two: B. N. Paramoo, tr., in B. N. Paramoo The Ascent of Self: A Reinterpretation of the Mystical Poetry of Lalla-Ded)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Where Are the Women’s Voices?

Hey, are you sexist? No? So how many spiritual women do you regularly cite?

If the answer is “not many,” perhaps you’d like a little education.

It’s bugged me for years that at my large, liberal, anti-ever-ism, UU church, women’s words are missing from most services. Among the few readings by women, the same people appear over and over (Mary Oliver being #1). This suggests much unconscious sexism.

Modern or ancient, UU, Christian, Buddhist, Sufi, Hindu, agnostic or you-name-it: there are many amazing, spiritual women's voices out there. And with the web, they are easy to find, so no one has any excuse for not citing them.

My annoyance at this flared recently when I read the excellent reflection on women’s presence at the Looking for Faith blog. But instead of uselessly fuming in damning judgment of others (and thus adding to the violence of the world), I thought I ought to help. So I am creating pages with some of my favorite quotable women, starting with a few classical, women mystics. (The first should be up soon.)

In the meantime, for anyone who wants a one-book education in women's spiritual poetry a great start is Jane Hirshfield's compilation: Women in Praise of the Sacred.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Are You A Mystic?

All my life I've been inundated by the kinds of experiences no one in my world ever talked about. So when I overheard someone call me a mystic, I easily accepted the label for myself. (Interestingly, that person was the spirited UU minister who agreed to baptize me.)

Yet in The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, Mathew Fox insists that all humans have mystical perceptions, and I agree with Fox. Maybe I have a few more strange perceptions than normal. Or maybe I'm just more ready to accept and act on mine. Still, I believe that having mystical experiences is really rather unremarkable.

Of course, some people may have spent so long denying their non-ordinary perceptions that they seem to have none. A few others may have actually been born without the ability. (Like one of my best friends, who I call a "real atheist" because he truly doesn't perceive anything beyond the physical.) But when I talk about seeing this or that, being visited by dead relatives, having prophetic dreams, remembering old lives, or meeting people and being sure our souls have a prior connection, most people say they've had an experience along those lines... They just don't talk about it.

So what about you?

What experiences have you had that go beyond the limits of the what-we-see-is-all-we-got, empirical, physical world?

And would you call yourself a mystic?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Running Under a New Myth

I used to think a myth was a story that was not true. Myths might be amusing or illuminating, but only children believed them. Three-degreed scientists, such as myself, did not “believe.” We relied on empirical data for our explanations. Yet I now realize all people on earth live by deeply held myths - because “myth” has an older meaning than “fictional story.”

Myths are those central concepts people use to organize perception – the sieves we see through. Many are part of a larger culture; others belong to individuals or families. Our personal myths are tweaked through life experience. And sometimes, they are radically changed. This happened to me; it is what brought me to believe in myths.

I was born, raised and lived most of my adult life in a university. My highly educated parents were open-minded agnostics. Our family motto was, "Other people go to church. We go camping." And did we ever go camping! Not just in Wisconsin, Arizona or Quebec, but in Kenya, Chad, and Malawi.

As a teen, I was fascinated by the mystery of existence. I lay in the grass watching the stars, pondering the simplest of questions, “Why IS all this?”

My family’s academic culture answered that the universe simply was – without explanation. In contrast, traditional religion said it was as it was because of a deity - just like a human, but bigger, immortal and in control. “Why not” or “Because” - neither answer was satisfying.

But upbringing tells. Without quite choosing, I lived by the agnostic, academic-culture myth. It had a lot going for it. Maybe I couldn’t know, "why” but with science, I could spend a fascinating lifetime exploring “what” and “how.” My eventual career choice of evolutionary biology took that exploration to the limits.

Herbert Spencer once said, “Those who have not studied science know not a tithe of the poetry by which they are surrounded.” What poetry I found!

The diversity of life rose and sank like a bog-moss carpet under the steps of a primordial giant. Interbreeding species embraced the Arctic in waves of passing genes, and fungi ate a tree alive while residing in its flesh. The matter in the universe was squeezed into threads and blebs on bubbles of empty space, while dark fluid from earth’s gut was pressed into jagged, Alaskan cliffs. On which I could stand, a little fly in boots and down vest, tapping with a steel hammer.

Yet slowly it dawned that however horrible or thrilling, if this whole universe merely existed as the accidental side effect of endlessly recycling, mindless energy - then it was, finally, futile. Cold. Dead. And humans were also already cold and dead. Which is why at my core, I lived in terror.

Yet I had an un-agnostic secret that did not let me to accept death as the meaning of the universe.

My secret? I saw a continuous flow of living light that moved within and among all things. Leaves on a tree, a weathered-gray fence, cracks in the sidewalk with weeds poking through: all reverberated with inner light, burgeoning meaning, joy. I called this “seeing with the backs of my eyes.”

So I swam in an ocean of throbbing presence while outwardly believing the myth of a dead universe, even in the stories I told myself.

Well, eventually the conflict grew too great. Something had to give. What gave was my fundamental myth. Not all at once and definitely not by choice. I was enticed, cajoled and finally had to have my grasping fingers pried off, one by one. Which really hurt. But now I live in another universe, perceived through an entirely different myth.

This universe is awake, aware, organized, and meaningful. It is a Being - albeit one beyond human comprehension. Yet we can feel this Being, because we are part of it - parts of a part of a great Whole – like a protein molecule in a cell in your liver in you, while you are in an ecosystem that is in the earth. Each of us breathes with the All, moves with the All, lives with the All, as the All breaths, moves and lives with us. It IS. And we ARE: the living light molecules in a living light Being - that feels like limitless joy – that feels like endless love.

How different everything looks. The scruffy guy swearing loudly on the street glows with living light, as does the tired mother struggling her two-year-old onto the elevator, and the woman who just slammed the phone in my ear when I dialed a wrong number.

Now I can’t despair no matter how bad things become. I need only be present to the suffering in front of me, practice - just practice - feeling love towards those I’d far rather despise, and try to release fear, death and the need to hurt. There is no possibility of defeat. My body can die, even in terrible pain, but I can’t die. NONE of us can die. Because in this light, the myth of God is real, and death is ever only temporary.

© R. Elena Tabachnick 2007 (An earlier version of this story was on Mind's Eye Radio in August, 2003)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Natural Theology: A Quote Quilt

If you would understand that “God’s Word is in all creation” (Hildegard of Bingen) “study nature not books;” (Louise Agassiz) “entreat the trees and rocks to preach the Dharma... ask rice fields and gardens for the truth.” (Eithei Dogen)

When you “steep yourself in the sea of matter, bathe in its fiery waters,” (Teilhard de Chardin) you will discover that “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9) Then you can “listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.” (Mel Brooks)

“Peace comes to those aware of the voice and bearing of trees,” (Cedric Wright) so let yourself “feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the little flowers open in the morning.” (Rainer Maria Rilke) Then you, too, will say, “I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then, / In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass; / I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name.” (Walt Whitman)

Understand that “people say, ‘that doesn’t interest me’ [when] they should say, ‘I have not interested myself in that.’” (Esther Dendel) For “wonder many ordinary bubble and drop and clod.” (J. Robert Oppenheimer) Even “cities... aren’t unnatural, any more than beaver dams or anthills are unnatural.” (James Trefil) For “buildings are made out of matter, earth is part of their fabric,” (Mohsen Motafavi) and “everything that is in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth is penetrated with connectedness.” (Hildegard of Bingen)

Yet “this looking business is risky” (Annie Dillard) because “what you see is what you get.” (Annie Dillard) And “the more I find out about things, the more mysterious they become” (Julie A. Dumoulin) because “the greater the circle of light, the greater the boundary of darkness by which it is surrounded.” (Humphry Davy) But since “even the poorest thing shines,” (Layman P’ang) with Frank O’Hara you may decide, “it is my job to be attentive. I am needed by things.”

We start “like a pitcher of clay floating in the water, water inside, water outside.” (Kabir) “What [we] are waiting for has already come, but [we] don’t recognize it.” (The Gospel of Thomas) For “this very place is the Lotus Land / this very body the Buddha,” (Hakuin) and “self is everywhere, shining forth out of all beings, vaster than vast… yet nearer than breath.” (Upanishads) So, practice the attentiveness from which naturally flows “the day of my spiritual awakening… the day I saw and knew I saw all things in God and God in all things.” (Mechtild of Magdeburg)

Once we discover that “divinity is in all things in such a way that all things are in divinity,” (Nicholas of Cusa), we absolutely know that “the kingdom of God is within us.” (alternate translation of Luke 17:21) Then, “suddenly... the pitcher is broken. Inside, outside, O friends, all one.” (Kabir)

© sewn by R. Elena Tabachnick 2007

Friday, September 21, 2007

Dog Park Epiphany: Anxiety Does Not Serve

Last Friday in the dog park it suddenly struck me: I don't have to work so hard finding people who want to form an interfaith, monastic community. My only job is to clear myself, coming to live more and more out of the joy-love-light that is my true, inner self. Anything else that is needed - including community - will follow. Naturally.

Whew! What a relief.

(Ok, so maybe to you that conclusion seems obvious, but I’m quite thrilled with myself that I finally got there.)

This is pretty much what I think Jesus meant in the quotes in Luke (12: 22-31) “Do not be anxious about your life, food, clothes… seek God and all these will be yours as well,” and Matthew (6:27) “Which of you by being anxious can add to your life.”

Add in the quotes (Mt 7: 1-5, Lk 6: 37) where Jesus cites the basic, creative/karma/energy law of the universe - “Judge not…condemn not… for the measure you give will be the measure you receive” - and don't I feel like a good Christian for relaxing and letting go of outcome!

Perhaps I had this insight because, for the last couple of months, I’ve been involved with an energy development group called Creating A Peaceful World, and I’m finally clearing enough to connect again to the joy-love-light at my center.

Sigh and double sigh.

After I was first “called” to monastic community, I was in constant touch with a sense of divine light that fed through my being like a direct conduit from God. Sometimes this light was a thick column. Sometimes it was a slim, barely-discernable thread. But it was always there. Often when I was overwhelmed by tiredness, hurt or anger, that light would bubble up. Then suffused with love and joy, all I wanted to do was grin and hug people.

Recurrent visitations with Jesus seemed part of the same package.

In the weeks following my departure from the monastery, grief swamped all that out. I not only lost the monastic life that had suited me like no other, but I'd lost the sense of Jesus' close presence, and even contact with the divine Source in my own being.

I knew the second two were still there - if only I could clear the fog obscuring my perception, but touching the Source in myself had been so easy and constant while on the road to the monastery and in the community that I thought I needed that crutch.

Yet my chance at life in monastic community seemed irrevocably lost. I’d had a shot at an established Benedictine monastery. If that purportedly ecumenical community had no place for me, what community would? Besides, even there, fitting in had meant hiding my true beliefs through dissembling, omission, or translation into orthodox-acceptable language - something I was no longer willing, or able, to do.

When I finally exhausted my desire to moon about crying, I decided to find a few others like myself – drawn to monastic community, yet either lacking identity in a particular religion or wanting the breadth of an interfaith approach. We could form a monastic household and I'd (selfishly) get a semblance of that life back, and maybe recover my direct contact with God. I talked to anyone I met who’d expressed such a desire, and sent this blog out on the global e-waves.

After almost three years, the prospects for this agenda seem bleak.

So I was walking around the Middleton Dog Park - a big field on a hill of old landfill with long views of marsh, woods and farms, with sand-hill cranes flying over. While my little beagle mix hunted rodents in the grass, my mind wandered freely.

That's when I suddenly realized I could give up anxiety and trying to MAKE HAPPEN the results I think I want.

Not that I’ve given up on my dream of forming a monastic household with a few others…Yet I no longer feel such longing - or desperation - about it.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Baptism Vows

I thought people might like to see the vows I wrote for my baptism. I would still affirm them today, but I might use fewer capital letters and less orthodox sounding language. smile. Only the Eucharist one seems a bit odd now - although it made sense at the time. But I carefully said nothing about how often. For about a year, Christian members of my UU congregation created a lovely Eucharist once a month, but we ran out of steam last spring.

I did the introduction. Then my minister read each vow, followed by my affirmation. She gave the conclusion.

INTRODUCTION: Dear friends, in Water and Spirit I proclaim that I recognize Christ in the life and words of the man, Jesus. In Water and Spirit I ask for release of ego confusions. In Water and Spirit I commit to follow the Way of Jesus - with his help rising toward Life, and rising again each time I fall - today, tomorrow and the next day, for as long it takes.


Do you accept Jesus as Christ, in whom the fullness of God and humanity was revealed?
Do you accept Jesus as your personal teacher and spiritual guide, to follow where he led?

Do you dedicate yourself to prayer and to living by the Word of God as found in the scriptures of Book and Earth?
Do you dedicate yourself to working for the justice of God in the world, and for being a living sign of the compassion and reconciliation of Jesus?

Do you dedicate yourself to gathering for Eucharist, to reaffirm all life as One? For every name is the one name and every ritual the one ritual as all are gathered in the body of God.

Do you accept responsibility for building the body of Christ by developing the spirit in your own life and helping develop the spirit in your community? For you are the bread whose breaking can feed the spiritually hungry.

Do you seek to love all of creation with God’s own unconditional love?

CONCLUSION: Let God birth you into Life through the mystery and teaching of Jesus Christ. May you stay faithful, through the help of God, forever. Amen

Friday, September 14, 2007

An Interfaith, Pantheist UU Is Called By Jesus: Part I

This story is excerpted from a forthcoming book on my monastic journey. As it is long, I’ve broken it into serial posts.

Meeting Jesus for the Very First Time

The girl was just ten, sitting on an overturned boat half buried in sand, kicking bare heels and sucking a stick of barley sugar. It was a worn, old boat with great gaps in its timbers. The girl called it her playhouse. It made a good perch to watch the men mend nets on the beach.

At ten the girl was old enough to help at home. And she did help, but then the salt sea wind would call and she couldn’t resist, slipping away between one task and the next. Part of a large family, she was easily overlooked as long as she stayed out from underfoot. So the wild girl and the tired, old boat were left to each other, forgotten by the women, invisible to the men.

The girl smiled at the sun and waves. Her toffee-brown legs swung free under a too-short dress that had once had bright stripes of red, blue and green, many wearers ago along the stair steps of older sisters. A breeze stirred the sea-thick air and tossed her dark, unkempt curls.

Something was happening. She squinted to watch a strange man talk to her brothers and cousins mending the nets. He left them and stood on the wet strand gazing out to sea. Little waves lapped his feet. Before she thought much about it, the girl hopped down and ran to him.

“What are you doing?” she asked, not considering the impertinence of a young girl speaking to a grown man.

The man didn’t consider it either. He turned, looked deep into her eyes, took her hand and smiled.

“Do you want to see my playhouse?” she asked, smiling back and swinging her new friend’s hand.

“No,” he said, “I want you to leave all that and be mine.”

Stopped still, her eyes grew big and round. She felt like she’d been poured full of something as thick and sweet as honey, yet as fiery as the mid-day sun. Then she frowned, looking back over her shoulder.

“What about my playhouse?” she asked.

Very simply and quietly he repeated, “Leave that and be mine.”

“Okay,” she replied.

They turned and walked hand in hand away from the water, blazing, honey-joy flowing between and all around them. The girl held her stick of candy out to him. Its pale, red-gold color glinted in the sun. He reached down and took it. Their eyes met and flashed with private laughter. She leaned against him and he put his arm around her. The fire-honey feeling flowed through her whole body: mouth, throat, fingers, stomach and between her legs.

* * * * *

I jerked back into myself. A man in a sexual exchange with a child? Whoa! That was no good. I peeked around the monastery room. Three of the sisters sat there. Eyes closed and breathing deeply, they were icons of serene meditation.

Bright, April sun slanted in through large, west-facing windows. The monastery's pond was just visible out the windows, beyond a field of native prairie. A delicious wind ruffled its surface into sparkling wavelets.

I shifted in the uncomfortable, monastery chair and shut my eyes again - with an admonishment to fix the sexual problem. To whom I spoke was not clear. It could have been my psyche, my soul or God.

Immediately, I was back on the beach, embraced by the man, Jesus. As radiant, sexual honey flowed between us, my little girl’s body flickered, shifted, then steadied into that of a young woman, age-mate to Jesus. We both had strong, young arms and legs, tight bellies, and clear, brown skin. We left the beach, walking with our arms about each other’s waists. I rested my head on his shoulder. We crossed a road drifted with sand and walked toward a crowd of people. He pulled away from me to call them. I felt peaceful but thought, “Oh. My time being his only is over. Now it’s their turn.”

At that Jesus’ head and shoulders filled my vision. Brilliant, laughing eyes gazed deep into mine as exclusive, intimate love flooded me. Yet all the time he loved each of the other people in the same intimate way. It was odd, like seeing double: two images filling one screen. He was in a monogamous relationship with me, yet also with a multitude of others. Visualizing it was like trying to see in more than three dimensions, many more than three dimensions. For a split second I could hold them all, but then they’d slip away.

Finally Jesus said, “Don’t you see? Through me, you are bonded to everyone else.” My struggle dissolved into expansive, encompassing joy.

* * * * *

The sister in charge of the meditation drew it to a close, recalling us back to our bodies and the room. Everyone looked centered and happy. I beamed at them, but at the back of my brain a small voice whispered, “Jesus. You just met Jesus. And. You. Were. Lovers.”

© 2007 R. Elena Tabachnick

Sunday, September 02, 2007

An Interfaith, Pantheist UU Is Called By Jesus: Part II

This story is excerpted from a forthcoming book on my monastic journey. As it is long, I’ve broken it into serial posts.

In the Throes of Divine Indifference

This would never have happened if I hadn’t been “called” into a Benedictine monastery. Which in itself was odd. A call to religious life had never been high on my list of priorities.

It occurred on a cool, clear May evening, two years before the retreat where I met Jesus. I’d just become an oblate (a lay associate), standing up with twenty-two others and pledging myself to the Rule of Benedict, the oblate community and the monastery.

At a post-oblation party, people snapped pictures of themselves with the two oldest sisters.

“Hey take mine,” I said, standing between the two sisters.

Suddenly my heart split, filling with a joyous light. Like a cheesy musical, love struck and left me helpless. It felt like a thick cord of living light had grown out of my heart and sunk itself deep into the monastery’s land. A stiff elastic, it only let me go so far, and for so long, before drawing me back. Like the worst sort of head-over-heels lover, I constantly thought about the monastery and was only at peace when there. But it was ridiculous. They were Catholics and I was an eccentric pantheist. We were totally incompatible.

I wanted to obey - the draw was so intensely delicious. Yet I also wanted it to stop. For one thing, I don’t trust that kind of love. More often than not, the tide recedes and there you are, stuck in a painfully awkward alliance. Besides, I was a professional with a good job, a nice house, a busy social life and lots of cherished personal habits. Was I supposed to abandon all that? So I dithered for weeks thinking maybe the whole thing would fade like some summer crush.

I spoke about my call to one friend or family member after another. They all said if it was that strong, I ought to tell the sisters. Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time I let a beckoning vision spin my life off on a previously unimagined track.

* * * * * *

In 1998, I was sitting in the office of another professor at DePaul University in Chicago rehashing college gossip. Stretched lazily in a chair, I was arrested in mid-grouse by a brilliant light that blossomed in my middle. It rose through my body with a tremendous sense of release that said, “let go.”

Searching for help understanding this experience, I spoke with a Catholic spiritual guide.

Now if you want intelligent religious argument go to a Jew or a Unitarian, but if you want to talk about mystical visions as if they were everyday occurrences, liberal Catholics can’t be beat. This woman acted as if having a vision was no more remarkable than eating toast.

I suspected that “letting go” meant leaving my secure but harried, academic career - even though I had no idea where that would bring me. She thought that made perfect sense. It was a customary Catholic spiritual behavior called “living by divine indifference.” This meant obeying God's call in your heart without consideration for long-term goals or potential disasters. You might be led into totally unexpected circumstances, but supposedly they would turn out to be more right than anything you could have planned. Trust in such divine promptings was the true meaning of “faith,” she insisted.

One cold, dreary day in late November I sat in a restaurant with large windows, waiting for some of my colleagues to arrive. Freezing rain poured down the glass. I thought, “The worst that could happen if I follow my vision would be to be stuck out there - cold, wet and hungry - with no way in.” The adventure seemed well worth that risk.

I had no idea “divine indifference” would bring me into a relationship with Jesus, instead.

* * * * * *

By the end of June the intensity of my call had not gone down. So I worked up the nerve to tell one of the sisters.

She was visibly taken aback. On recovering her composure, she turned to me with a schoolmarm frown. “But you’re not Christian, are you?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“We only take baptized Christian women,” she said with a tight smile.

A happy, little bubble rose in my thoughts and popped. Baptism sounded nice. “Well, I might get baptized,” I offered tentatively.

But part of me was inwardly screaming, “Are you nuts? You're not going to be Christian!”

© 2007 R. Elena Tabachnick

Thursday, August 30, 2007

An Interfaith, Pantheist UU Is Called By Jesus: Part III

This story is excerpted from a forthcoming book on my monastic journey. As it is long, I’ve broken it into serial posts.

Stumbling On Into Christianity

Since childhood I’d often seen a tantalizing light that radiated from every ordinary thing: tree branches, trash on sidewalks, weathered fence posts, people’s faces. It wasn’t exactly visible, but was like a sheath of radiance that I “saw” with “the backs of my eyes.”

Once at the end of a long day of hiking in the Alaskan Chugach Mountains, I watched the sun set over Cook Inlet. I’d been hiking alone for several days. My ties to time, and the normal round of social meaning, had come undone - blown away by the rushing wind. I sat against a rock in a little hollow filled with heather, where there was some cover. The only sounds were the wind and the soft scrape of my down vest on the rock. I leaned back thinking of nothing at all.

Near the horizon, the sun passed behind a bank of clouds. Then it was free, setting the undersides of the clouds ablaze in streaks of pink, orange and liquid gold. Finally it dropped over the horizon, and soon a few stars were visible.

The wind’s sharp fingers sliced behind my eyes as my body shrank to a speck of blood warmth in a vast, rock cathedral - this earth - spinning into stars spinning into galaxies spinning through expanding depth. Magma rose to earth’s surface, crystallized, was crinkled into mountains, and then subducted to melt again. Mist gathered into rain that flowed from a stream through spruce and heather back into clouds.

Then I saw a glittering net of brilliant sparks hung against the dusk-darkening sky. Each spark was a living being. Energy flowed down the threads of the net as the tiny lights cycled and recycled one into another. The net reached through all space to all beings on all planets. It reached to the slope on which I lay as but one more, infinitesimal spark in a multitude of sparks, all part of a single, dazzling whole. Although more small than small, as one with all the others I became huge. Became the entire scintillating net of interconnected lights, breathing in. Breathing out.

Not long ago, I discovered that other people see this light. When I mentioned that glittering net to a Hindu friend he exclaimed, “That’s Indra’s necklace.”

* * * * * *

After I started hanging out with Christians, I began to say “God” when speaking of this illumination, but my God was an energy field, not a person.

Then during the year I prepared to become an oblate of the monastery, my spiritual experience shifted. By the time I was ‘called,’ what had been an undifferentiated, luminous energy - radiating equally from everything - began to feel like it contained a loving “other.” Although still a continuous energy field, it was no longer uniform. That “other” was separate from myself, and we could have a relationship. Around Christians, I began to call that loving other “Christ.”

But that didn’t make me Christian. For one thing, my sense of Christ was as a location or concentration in the energy - like a thick cloud. There was an identity, a Being, different from myself, but it was way more diffuse, and larger, than a human. And there was absolutely nothing male about it. If this was Christ, where was Jesus?

Maybe in Jesus’ day, people sensed an energy like that in him, but I couldn’t see it. Even the word ‘Jesus’ stuck in my throat: a sticky mix of simpering, Sunday school pictures, hate-filled, Evangelical harangues, and the long, Christian history of burning people like me.

* * * * * *

I joined a Unitarian church because I like interfaith worship, but I was born a Universalist. If each material being is an expression of an underlying, uniform energy, then separation is an illusion. Maybe I couldn’t stop acting and feeling as if I were separate: ridden by my anger, jealousy, fear or longing to be loved. But I knew this made no sense. After all, “I” am already “you” and “he” and “she,” so what is there to be angry, jealous or frightened about?

There could also be no such thing as “hell.” Every living being shone with radiant light, and every human was part of a single, divine whole. So “eternal punishment” was ridiculous. It would be like your head deciding to burn your toe forever in order to punish it for once having stubbed itself.

When I left DePaul I hoped it was a step to seeing things more clearly. Then belief in my little, separated self might dissolve. That hope was also at the back of my motivation when I first started going to the monastery. I hadn’t bargained on being stuck with a thick light-cord pulling me irresistibly into monastic community.

My call never wavered, so I kept asking the sisters to consider me, although they were hardly encouraging.

It was what divine indifference required, and it seemed the Benedictine thing to do. Benedict says a monastery should only consider an applicant who “keeps knocking at the door and at the end of four or five days has shown patience in bearing harsh treatment and difficulty of entry.” I imagined a fortress with the poor applicant huddled outside the wall in slushy snow while monks threw rocks and frozen manure down from above. That was pretty much how I felt.

Finally, the sister in charge of vetting new members agreed to meet with me, although she made it plain she doubted if I was really called.

Given the intensity of the pull, I was overjoyed at this breakthrough. Except for one problem. Now I would have to get baptized.

I made a cursory investigation of several traditional Christian denominations, but they just weren’t mine. It would have been lying to join one just to have the baptism the sisters required. Either the monastery would take me as the UU I really was, or my call was as misguided as the sister said.

But was there a way to be Christian while rejecting the traditional doctrines of sin, judgment, hell and salvation? And could I be baptized as a UU?

© 2007 R. Elena Tabachnick

Thursday, August 23, 2007

An Interfaith, Pantheist UU Is Called By Jesus: Part IV

Excerpted from a forthcoming book on my monastic journey.

So That's Baptism

My UU minister had been raised as some kind of Christian, although she had long since left that identity. But she suggested books that might help me find a Universalist and Unitarian Christianity. The first was Stephen Mitchell’s The Gospel According to Jesus.

Like our Unitarian-leaning third president, Thomas Jefferson, Mitchell cut the vengeful, angry passages out of the canonical Gospels. Since these were inconsistent with Jesus’ inclusively loving message, he assumed they were interpolations of later writers. The authentic Jesus teaching lay in truly radical sayings like: "Love your enemies." "Help those who hate you." "Don't resist evil." "Don’t judge." "If someone takes your things, don't ask for them back." "God’s love is like the sun that shines on good and bad alike." "Do not fear.”

Wow! This was a Christianity I could believe in.

Mitchell also drew parallels between Jesus’ words and other religions, such as Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. That helped a lot. I’ve never understood why people argue that theirs is the one true religion because their doctrines are unique - with counterparts in no other religion. Unique is weak. Singular events are anomalies. At best, unique doctrines might express some local, culturally limited experience of the divine. They can’t point to universal truths. The Gospels might actually have something to say about God if similar ideas existed in other faiths.

Soon I was eating up authors with diverse views of Jesus, or who lit up the dark corners of Christian history - like Elaine Pagels, Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, and The Gospel of Thomas. Some saw Jesus as a great teacher of social justice, but not divine. Others saw Jesus as a living expression of pure, divine love, but this was a divine love anyone could express.

I began to think I could be baptized as that kind of Christian. The only question was how and by whom? After six months, I got up the nerve to approach my minister.

She met me in an old, Episcopalian building on campus where the young adult UU fellowship rented space. The fellowship gathered in a gracious room with arched windows, dark wood paneling and plush furniture. I found her there setting up chairs. She led me down a long flight of stairs to a poky office in the basement. She had to take a stack of papers off a chair for me to sit.

I said I wanted to be baptized, but as a UU. Could she help me?

“UUs don’t use baptism,” she said. There was a silence. I waited while she looked at me out of brightly intelligent eyes. Then she went on, “Yet I’m impressed by your sincerity. This doesn’t seem to be just a whim.”

I smiled and nodded.

She smiled back. “I’m willing to work with you on it. But I want you to first explore what baptism means to you. I have to be sure this is a real calling of your heart.”

“If it was, could you do it?” I asked.

She laughed. “Actually, yes. I went to a Christian seminary and they had a class on full-immersion baptism. I meant to skip the class because there was no reason for a UU minister to know that. Only a friend of mine said I ought to go. ‘You never know. You might need it,’ he said. So yes, I can do a baptism. Although I can't do it as an official function," she added with a little frown, "only as something private.”

“So, um, what now?” I asked.

“Well, why don’t you write about what baptism means to you, what you plan to say and who would be present as witnesses.”

I hadn’t thought far enough ahead to imagine witnesses. I left her office feeling energized.

It was almost a year after the notion of baptism first popped into my head and I’d finally answered those questions to my, and my minister’s, satisfaction.

In May, I was puzzling over what vows to say. Then I was inspired by an Easter Mass at the monastery.

When I realized the priest was about to sprinkle us with holy water in an “affirmation of baptism,” I wanted to duck and hide. The monastery folks might be very liberal Catholics, yet they were still Catholic. I didn’t want to get caught “affirming” words I didn’t believe. But as the priest intoned the vows, I was elated. With a little interfaith Universalist tweaking they were just what I was looking for.

I was still embarrassed to say “Jesus” in public, but on a Friday morning in June, I went with the minister and ten friends to a state park on a lake. A grassy picnic area fronted a pebble beach. It was empty except for some ducks, a couple mothers with toddlers and, in the far distance, a park employee mowing grass. We set up an altar on the last picnic table. Behind us, the grass ended where a low, stone breakwater tumbled out into the water.

Toddler cries made a homey background noise as we sang and chanted. Then I said the vows and it was time. The minister led me into the water, skirting a few big clumps of floating weed. When the water was just over our waists, she stopped.

“Take your time,” she whispered in my ear, “When you’re ready, nod, and then just fall.” She placed her hands at my back.

I breathed in and out, trying to take in the moment: the miniature, slightly oily swells of the water - murky green and smelling of algae, the sky where it showed pale blue between thick clouds, the distant sounds of toddlers and lawn mower, and the feel of my wet dress wafting about my stomach.

I nodded and fell. The minister moved so smoothly that I felt nothing until cold water closed like two hands over my face. Shocked, I burst up, arms raised, in a shower of spray.

And that was pretty much it. We waded to shore and shivered through a closing prayer. Then packed up and went home.

Baptism didn’t actually change anything. Spiritual dilemmas, work anxieties and relationship muddles all continued just as before.

© 2007 R. Elena Tabachnick

Monday, August 20, 2007

An Interfaith, Pantheist UU Is Called By Jesus: Part V

Excerpted from a forthcoming book on my monastic journey.

Help! Those Psalms Are Yucky!

The sisters needed a second year of talk about my call before they agreed to the last step: a “discernment” retreat at the monastery. After that they’d have to make a decision to take me or say no. Of course, it was supposed to be a mutual exploration, but my heart had never wavered. Neither had my doubts. I’d faced a simple choice: follow my heart in faith and divine indifference, putting aside all doubts, or deny my heart in favor of fear.

The only healthy thing was to follow my heart – however inappropriate I might seem for Benedictine community, or Benedictine community seem for me. Realizing this the previous September, I’d told the sisters I was ready for the commitment.

They weren’t.

Nothing anyone said or did changed my heart, or my intension. But the extra year did have one, nice side effect. It gave me months after I was already sure to test the feeling of letting go.

* * * * * * *

My retreat was finally scheduled for April, the week after Easter.

That year was only my second experience of a Catholic Easter. I loved it. On Maundy Thursday the congregation washed each other’s feet at Mass, with dinner served by the sisters. On Good Friday, a solemn service included letting anyone who wished kneel for a private moment by a large wood cross lying on the ground. Saturday Vigil had processions that wound outside to bless new fire and water. And on Sunday, there was a celebratory Mass.

Before I hung out at the monastery, my ritual experience was limited to eccentric, solitary earth-ceremonies I performed for myself. Yet I ate up all those corporate rites. The liturgical year seemed to provide an incredibly useful way to process loss, despair and transformation, not to mention all those perfectly-good-for-a-pagan rituals of darkness, water and blessing new fire.

* * * * * * *

By April of that year, I was going to the monastery several evenings a week. I got along with everyone and they got along with me. So I entered the retreat lightly, expecting it to be relaxing and fun. My only concern was if the sisters would finally agree that the Spirit was behind my call. But it was not really my problem. If the Spirit was, they would.

I arrived at the monastery still pleasantly buzzed from the four days of Easter services. An echoing buzz of enthusiastically trilling birds filled the spring air. As I trundled my wheeled case to a room, the loud CLANG, clang, CLANG, clang of the ten-minute warning sounded for afternoon prayer. I dumped my suitcase and went. Most people hurried to prayer at 4:30, so the oratory was empty as I took a prayer book and entered, stopping to flick a quick bow at the cross.

The oratory was a small, plain room at one end of the monastery. It felt both ordinary, like old slippers, and set apart, a sacred space reverberating with decades of prayer. Two facing rows of plain, oak chairs formed an aisle down the middle of the room. A modern icon of Jesus hung on one wall. At the far end, an oak lectern and candleholder, as well as a metal cross, stood in front of several tall windows. Outside in the tiny lobby a baptismal font made a continuous, soft burble.

I closed my eyes and waited for the liturgy to start.

Breathing out I thought, “You,” and connected with that larger something-or-other, God, Christ, Whatever. Breathing in I thought, “I,” and my personal something-or-other blossomed inside. I, You, I, You. The stress of work and driving smoothed away as I fell into the rhythm of breath. Then one of the sisters came in, flicking on the light. More people entered. The bells rang once for the half hour and there was a general scuffle. I opened my eyes, standing with the rest.

The leader sang, “Oh God, come to our assistance”.

We all answered, “Oh God, make haste to help us.”

The first psalm was nice, but the second set my teeth on edge. An angry God crushed other nations in war for the sake of Israel. Yuck. The canticle wasn’t much better, crooning that everything on earth worshiped Jesus as God. By the time we stood for the second “Glory Be,” I’d lost all patience - even for that feminist monastery’s fairly innocuous version, with “Creator” substituted for “Father” and “Spirit of Life” for “Holy Spirit.” I grumbled under my breath about orthodox, Trinitarian arrogance.

How would I survive three daily doses of this stuff? In the few minutes of silence after the reading, I gazed glumly at the cross.

I closed my eyes. Inspired by who knows what I prayed, “Jesus, if you want me here, I have to feel you so close I can’t slither away on any excuse, not even the nastiest of scriptures.”

© 2007 R. Elena Tabachnick

Thursday, August 16, 2007

An Interfaith, Pantheist UU Is Called By Jesus: Part VI

Excerpted from a forthcoming book on my monastic journey.


At 3:00 on the afternoon of the retreat, I joined several sisters in a conference room for a guided meditation. Afternoon sun poured through large, west-facing windows. We all shifted to get comfortable and closed our eyes as the oldest sister told us to relax and take deep breaths. Then she asked us to imagine meeting Jesus.

At first I smelled sea air, heavy with salt and rotting organic matter. I saw a girl sitting on an old boat, overturned in the sand. Then I was the girl.

Distantly, I could feel my butt sunk into a chair in the monastery, but the vision was very real, and a lot more sensual than the usual guided meditation. I could taste salt in the air and feel my bare heels drum the side of the boat. Sand slipped under my feet as I ran to greet the man standing at the shore Later, as we walked to a road with our arms about each other’s waists, I heard the chatter among people gathered at a roadside market.

After the sister drew our meditation to a close, she asked us to say what had happened. I said I’d been a girl on a beach. Jesus had walked by and I ran to him. He said, “Leave all that and be mine,” and I said, “O.K.” I mentioned that it was interesting Jesus said “be mine,” not “follow me,” like in the Gospels.

I didn’t mention the sexual honey that had flowed between us or that I was still warmed by it.

* * * * * * * *

It was 4:00 by the time our meditation was done. The sisters scattered to their offices for a bit of work before prayer. I just went to the oratory and sat down. The intensity of my meeting with Jesus had left me wrapped in a blissful fog. When prayer started, I stood and sat, bowed and chanted, paying no attention whatsoever. Until a line from First Peter leapt out, “through Christ you came to trust in God,” and I was jerked back into myself.

Yuck! What exclusivist Christian jargon!

“No one needs Christ to trust God.” I grumbled to myself, “I sure didn’t." At that my mind took off on a familiar tirade. "Why do orthodox types always insist their religion is the one true way, yet their only arguments for this boil down to ‘because it is ours’? Don’t they realize every member of every other orthodox religion is saying the exact same thing?”

“You can’t have it both ways,” I continued, as my eyes drifted past the reader to fix on the cross, “If ‘Christ’ is some universal aspect of the Divine All, Christ must have appeared many times under many names on earth alone, not to mention all the other planets. If Christ only appeared in Jesus, then at best Christ is a very local, very limited facet of the divine. Those are the only choices: universal and all over with many names, or just once and local.”

At that, Jesus rushed into view, swamping my vision. His eyes danced over a mischievous grin, like a little boy who’d sprung a delicious, practical joke. Oh great! Jesus thought all my grumpy logic chopping was simply funny.

Then I realized: his look was familiar. I knew those eyes and that grin.

* * * * * * * *

Years before, around the time I’d had the vision that sent me from DePaul, I’d become aware of my own soul. It felt like a stream of light flowing into the top of my head and down through my whole body. At that time I did a chakra balancing exercise every morning. It felt as if my soul flowed from the energy anchor above my head. There the soul light blossomed out, while beyond that point the sense of “me” thinned and disappeared. A youth stood at the blossom point. He had a wide grin and a mischievous personality. I called him “Laughing Boy.”

For a while, I busted my mind wondering if “Laughing Boy” was a personification of my soul, an angel-like helper being, or simply a figment of my overactive imagination. I’d long since given up worrying about it.

Yet now this Jesus - with his wide, joking grins - looked and felt the just the same.

“Wait,” I said to him, “Are you saying that’s also you? You’re Laughing Boy?”

Jesus grinned even wider and then laughed aloud.

Sheesh. All these Christians talked longingly of the day everyone would be “one in Christ.” But this was way too much oneness for comfort. I was lost in a tangle of self-referential paradox.

* * * * * * * *

The canticle started and my focus shifted back to the oratory. The canticle text was also from First Peter: “Even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.”

In my mind, I began to laugh along with Jesus. I was fit to burst with inexpressible and glorious joy. “Luckily, I have seen you,” I told him, matching his grin with one of my own, “Because as you doubtless know, believing without seeing is not exactly my forte.”

As prayer drew to a close, Jesus vanished. Before turning to leave, I bowed deeply to the cross, suffused with gratitude to the one who had called me.

* * * * * * * *

That night was clear and soft. I felt restless so slipped from my room. Everyone else had already gone to bed.

The monastery sat at the foot of a large hill. On the other side, a scrubby field of old, dry grass was dotted with baby oak trees. I walked up and over the hill. A gentle wind carried the smell of moist soil and spring promise.

I lay on the ground in the baby oak field and looked at the stars.

What was with this desire to surrender to Jesus?

The call was a cord of light. The soul energy streaming into my head was a column of light. Both were indistinguishable from the light of Christ. All were infinitely enticing. For years I’d prayed to more fully shine that light. Could surrender to Jesus be the way?

My rational mind could make no sense of this. It ran back and forth like a panicked rodent in a cage. Yet I felt as calm as if I were on a very straight and right road. I thought of a line from Norman Fischer's zen version of Psalm 23: “You lead me down… The path that unwinds in the pattern of Your name.”

I lay in the field a long time imagining I could sleep there, but finally returned to my room and crawled into the hard monastery bed.

© 2007 R. Elena Tabachnick

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

An Interfaith, Pantheist UU Is Called By Jesus: The End

Excerpted from a forthcoming book on my monastic journey.

Leaving All My Playhouses

I decided not to tell anyone that I’d seen Jesus, afraid of what talking would do. Cynical voices were already murmuring in the background of my mind, scornfully deriding my “vision” as “grandiose nonsense,” “self-centered delusion,” and “just imagination.” If I opened my mouth, they might take over.

But that Friday, I had a dinner date with an old friend. She belonged to a liberal Jewish synagogue, but was basically a spiritual skeptic. We always met at the same campus Chinese place. It was cheap, yet had surprisingly well-prepared food.

“So, what’s been happening with you?” my friend asked casually as the waitress set a pot of tea on the table.

There were a million decent responses to this question that left my vision alone, but did I use one? Nope.

“Just last Wednesday at the monastery, I had this thing with Jesus,” I chirped.

As soon as the word, ‘Jesus’ left my mouth I knew I was sunk. Shoot! Shoot and a half and three quarters! Why did I break my silence?

My friend regarded me with a lopsided, quizzical smile. She reached for the teapot and poured. “Oh? Really? With Jesus?” she asked.

Embarrassment rose like the steam from the pot, heating my face and turning my brain to mush. She was going to think I was some kind of bible quoting, personally saved, Jesus freak!

Lifting a cup to my lips with a knowing, academic chuckle, I rushed to cover my tracks. “Of course, there may not have been any actual, historical human being called Jesus. It hardly matters. He could have been some teaching myth created by post-exilic Pharisees to spread basic tenets of the emerging, book-and-synagogue-based Judaism. It’s the radical social teaching that counts, anyway… not that any of that is unique to Christianity, either. ”

As the words left my mouth, I cringed inside, but I couldn’t seem to stop. “In fact, there’s not much Jesus purportedly said that wasn’t taught by Hillel or other major Jews at the time Jesus was supposed to have lived. You know, ‘the essence of the bible is don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself, and all the rest is commentary'”

What pedantic, intellectual crap! I kicked myself. Hard. But it was too late.

By the time the waitress set a little tray with our bill and fortune cookies on the table, I’d cut my vision up into little pieces and scattered them to the winds. My mouth felt tacky and my mind was dust. All my intense, sensory experience had dulled into overblown, invented drivel.

I berated myself for a coward all the way home.

* * * * * * * *

I was still kicking myself the next morning as I stood on the front lawn surveying the flowerbeds, deciding where to plant a flat of pansies.

It was very dry.

“Looks like we’re headed for drought this summer,” I announced to the garden.

Wisps of cloud crossed bright, blue sky and a warm wind blew from the west. Great weather except that we’d had little snow that winter and little rain all spring.

I began digging the pansies into the soil.

Why had I belittled my vision to my friend when it had been so exhilarating and real?

I sighed as I patted soil around the last plant and sat back to see how they looked. The pansies were a rich, velvety purple, almost black. I touched one petal. It was soft and slightly moist.

My sense of Jesus had been as real as these petals. It couldn’t have been “just imagination.”

“Even if it was ‘imagination,’ is that so meaningless?” I muttered as I dragged out the hose and began to water the pansies. “What is 'imagination,' after all? Maybe it is simply the human organ for perception of the divine, just as eyes are our organs for perception of light.”

I sighed again.

The truth was I believed Jesus had been a real man who actually lived. I believed that man, Jesus, had embodied unconditional, all-embracing, divine love. Jesus had shone the divine love-energy clearly, without the ego confusion that obstructed most of us. Yet this was simply a brighter version of the same love-light-energy that was in me and in all things – the true, core substance of all life.

And I believed this great, divine Love-Being had invited me into personal relationship. So why, only days later, was I busy denying him by smothering my vision in long-winded, academic obfuscation?

I made my experience socially palatable by waffling on its reality. Did it matter if I’d met Jesus or Christ or my own soul? The problem was, it embarrassed me to have a personal relationship with Jesus. God-the-ineffable was easier. Christ as non-personified, universal energy was easier and much more familiar. But the one I’d met, that Jesus, had felt singular and personal, a once-human “he,” not an “it” or an “all.”

“No waffling. I’m going to have to simply accept that I met Jesus,” I told the pansies.

A morning dove flew down from a spruce in the middle of the lawn and looked at me. Maybe it hoped for bugs from the soil I’d turned over. It was young, like one that had watched from the roof of my car as I came out the day before. On the radio I’d just heard about a man dying of AIDS whose partner was already dead. The man said, “In the hole left by my partner Jesus has moved in.” The guy was radiant. He wouldn’t change a thing, even having AIDS. His disease had created the space that allowed Jesus in, and he wouldn’t trade that for anything. Being with Jesus, his suffering became peripheral.

“Perhaps embarrassment isn’t the problem,” I thought as I turned off the hose. “It could be that Jesus is offering more relationship than I’d bargained for.”

Because accepting Jesus meant leaving all my playhouses.

I was too small to know God-the-All. Jesus held open a door, showing me another way. My heart and joy said, “follow,” and they were the most reliable guides. Could I let go of my fear and walk the way Jesus offered?

Maybe. Maybe.

I picked up the empty flat and headed in. It was time for lunch.

© 2007 R. Elena Tabachnick