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

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Dichotomy of Extremes: Obedience to Self or Community

“Remember, people are essentially good beings looking for safety to be who they are,” a friend sent in her 2006 Christmas message.

An important question for spiritual communities, and spiritual seekers, is this: where is the balance between group needs and individual inspiration? Can a healthy monastic community grow individual gifts - even though some will go against the plans of superiors, long-held group practices or a community’s stated mission? On the other side: can individuals be obedient to internal, divine inspiration and yet bow to the needs of a community?

My monastic experience raised this question in spades.

I entered community desperate to discover, and live as, who I truly was - a basic part of humility. That meant accepting my whole self: good, bad and indifferent. And that meant facing shameful parts of myself. I thought community would hold up an uncompromising mirror to show my deep flaws AND my wondrous divinity. Yet offer the support and loving acceptance of others engaged in the same work.

As I read Benedict, this seemed to be the main purpose of monasteries. Maybe other modern communities had this goal. Mine didn’t. For one thing, the old sisters were bound up in a superiority that derailed everything else.

They seemed to exemplify a flaw that Syncletica warned vehemently about. “Through pride [the Enemy] attacks subtly and secretly a soul that considers itself zealous and diligent in discipline. …The soul imagines that it has grasped matters that are incomprehensible to the majority and that it is superior in [spiritual practices]. He seduces it to forget all its sins… He steals from its mind the memory of its mistakes… He deludes this person with positions of command and high office… with teaching posts and displays of healing. Thus deceived, then, the soul perishes and is destroyed, smitten with a wound [pride] that is hard to heal.”

Of course I did my part with an excess of doubts, angry muttering in my head, and a fearful protectiveness when asked to forgo personally inspired, creative work.

The sisters said my negative thoughts were the resistance of an ego that refused to die. Submitting despite myself would lead to freedom.

They could also have quoted Syncletica: “Another evil precedes [pride in spiritual discipline]: disobedience… By means of the opposing virtue of obedience, it is possible to cleanse the festering cancer of the soul, for obedience, Scripture says, is better than sacrifice. (1 Sam 15:22).”

There was the rub. The Spirit in my heart demanded artistic obedience. Wasn’t it denying God to put a human authority above this? Or was I undermining my desire to be emptied by grasping after a personal need?

By the end of my first year, it felt like a knife was twisting in my guts. Breathing was hard and I rarely slept. Each morning I rose frantic to escape. But during morning meditation and prayer, joy would bubble up and I’d see amazing good in the place. If chanting had that effect in a year, I wanted to know what would happen after decades. So each day I committed to stay.

I just didn’t know. Did the pain come from old ego habits refusing to let go? Then persistence would bring me through. But if it was caused by going against my spirit, I didn’t belong, no matter how illuminated I felt in prayer.

I was in the midst of this struggle when the sisters kicked me out.

This monastery let in few new women. All had an intense call. All struggled to meet the old sisters' demands. Yet almost all were kicked out. We had different personalities and the reasons given varied widely.

Now I believe we were dumped because we brought too much SELF - too much individual gift. We just couldn't lose ourselves under the personalities, behavioral norms and control of the old sisters while staying true to the person our souls demanded we be.

This points to an interesting dichotomy of extremes. In most western monastic communities throughout history, group identity vastly overwhelmed individual identity. The point was to dissolve your self in group norms and habits. American Benedictine communities like mine grew up in the 1940s and 50s when hordes of teenage girls were strongly molded into group behavior by authoritarian, punitive methods.

Meanwhile, the rest of American culture moved toward extremes of individuality.

Neither extreme seems particularly healthy for individuals - spiritually or psychologically. And neither extreme seems healthy for communities.

We all are seeking safety to be ourselves. Warped by loss or fear of loss, as well as the sense of needing to please to deserve love, many people have no idea who they really are. And few have hope of a community that wants only to provide the safety for each to find out.

Could a new kind of monastery fulfill this desperate need?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Monastery for People of No Particular Tradition

One of the books I took into the monastery was Radical Spirit. My first blog - now folded into this one - was inspired by a quote in that book, in an essay by Georg Buehler. He bemoaned the lack of monasteries for open-minded spiritual seekers of no particular tradition.

I fit the no particular tradition bill - despite a nascent and eccentric Christianity. I did not doubt my call to community - it was so tactile and overwhelming. Yet it never made sense. Why would someone like me be led into a traditional, Benedictine monastery?

Of course, it was very, very, very liberal... to a Roman Catholic. But that was hardly liberal at all to me. I had to keep reminding myself of the courage it took for Catholic sisters to make the changes they had made - a gender neutral liturgy, an ask-no-questions, open Eucharist, and an ecumenical community. (In fact, soon after they kicked me out, the local Bishop and told them, "Either be Catholic or be ecumenical. You can't be both." To the sisters' credit, they choose ecumenical.)

I wondered if the Spirit called me into the monastery to open it a little bit to something beyond the narrow "ecumenism" they'd envisioned. Then one day, a monastery for people of any (or no) tradition might grow there. A traditional community has a strength that comes from roots sunk deep in centuries of experience. Wouldn't it be great if those roots could support a new kind of monasticism that welcomed all, without any theological litmus tests?

If I had to be silent about much of my spiritual experience in the meantime, then o.k. "Prefer silence" was an important monastic directive. Besides, for someone with my total lack of background and love of history, it was fascinating to study monastic and Christian sources.

Maybe the Spirit was trying to grow a new branch from that monastery. Maybe not. Either way, the sisters were uninterested.

So there went my one shot at the easy road of traditional, monastic life in community. I'm certainly grateful for the experience, now I'm out on the MUCH harder road of monastic-in-the-world... although grief for that way of life rises up and swamps me on a regular basis.

And out here, the original question gains greater significance. Why aren't there monasteries for people of no particular religious tradition?

There seem to be a growing number of liberal, interfaith or no faith folks who are drawn to monastic community, yet can't fit into one of the traditional faiths. I've met some online, read similar musings in other blogs, and noticed a plethora of on and off line communities.

How do we go from speculation to foundation?

And how do we find the strength, not to mention the gonzo-ameliorating customs, of a traditional community - especially norms that prevent the so-easy slide into personality cult?

If you follow this label, you'll find posts on some of the issues a no-tradition monastery might face. Most are issues any monastery has that would be heightened by lack of a common Rule or Guru or whatever to set the norms. Success with that lack will mean more conscious, relationship work, more tolerance of mistakes and emotional uproar... and lots more humility.