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)