Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Do I Love God?

“I’ve been play it safe, hiding behind words, but the truth is I love God,” a woman of my acquaintance recently declared.

Another friend looked thoughtful then said, “Since God is in you, you can only love God as much as you love yourself.”

Hmmmm.

I struggle to love my “self” – this little, challenged, earthy, personality called “Elena” - yet still experience an all-encompassing sense of love with… or through… or in “God.” But do I love God?

When I use the laughably inadequate, short hand expression “God,” I refer to an indescribably delicious, joy-bright-dancing-light glory-shout-alleluia core-still-certainty of being. This energy has the taste/feel/color/sensation of unlimited, unconditional “love.” And this love energy flows between, around and through all beings.

The whole energy field, “God,” is love, and that fills and surrounds each of us (and all other things). In fact despite appearances, all existence is a continuous field of that. Yet that - “God” - extends far beyond material existence.

From one view, that is an undifferentiated unity so the appearance of separate selves must be an illusion. Not nothing, yet without “things” - because in unity, there can be no selves. Because in unity there is just one - no “not-one.”

But from another view there are selves, or loci of identity, in the field. These selves, these loci, have identity because of their relationships to each other. To have an “I” means having a “not-I,” a “you.” Only relationship with you creates the “not-I” that confers my identity because only in relationship with you have I one characteristic and not another.

Without “you,” “I” truly can’t exist. Without you I also can’t love because “to love” I need a "you" from which and to which love energy flows. In relationship we can love, while our relationship creates our selves.

The thing is, I’m not sure I “love” God.

God is love. When I touch that (in me or outside me), I dwell in love. In fact, I am punch-drunk, exuberantly, assuredly, full-to-overflowing with love. I feel love flow in, through and all around me. This feeling of love escalates and clarifies in the presence of other selves that radiate love energy more unreservedly than I do.

One of those selves is Jesus. Embarrassing, but true. I love Jesus. And Jesus is God just as I am God and you are God and this chair is God - except he’s a lot less blurry. In that sense, I love God.

Still, do I love God, the field, itself?

Hmmmmmm.

* * * * * *

Friday, June 06, 2008

Rilke, Art & Running Away

All my adult life I’ve been terrified of something Rilke said in Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke tells the young man to discover if he must write or die. If yes, stop whining about the difficulties and “build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.” If not, great. Forget writing, and go off to do something else.

I knew Rilke was right. I also knew I had to create to live. But my main response was “No, no, no, no, NO!”

Living for creativity took too much letting go and trusting (what I now call) God in every moment. It was far easier to find excuses for an easier, more socially acceptable way of life.

Only in the end, that doesn’t work. Believe me. I’ve tried.

I first “found my medium” carving a stone as a young woman of 21. When I carved, I lost all sense of my separate self, and all sense of time, sinking into an ecstatic state that lasted seven or eight hours. As an undergrad student, my stone was in the basement studio of a large building. I kept my tools on the fourth floor. I thought needing to consciously decide to up there to get my tools might keep me from inadvertently falling into carving. It never worked. If I simply walked past the building (foolishly/knowingly - "surely I can go that way without stopping. I'm exhausted. I want to get home."), I’d wake up eight hours later, too tired to lift the hammer and absolutely starving.

Which was exhilarating… It was also clearly addictive, out of my control, and terrifying.

My carving was very “successful,” but I left art for science after finishing the one stone. At the time, it felt like going into a wider world in order to know more, not like running away. But I had to wonder if I was hiding fear of artistic life under nice-feeling justifications.

My overt fear was poverty, but I’d also internalized the anti-art phobia of American culture. Artists were lazy and self-indulgent, and art was a “luxury” that wasted resources better used for other purposes, especially taking care of those in need.

I’d argue that all humans share the desire to create. So art-making couldn’t just be greed, pride or laziness. I’d argue that it took real humility to acknowledge the gifts I’d been given and take responsibility for them by building my life accordingly. Denying my talent was the height of arrogance, not to mention cowardly.

None of those arguments stopped me from dancing off to look for something more respectable and comfortable each time I’d resolved to live a creative/inspiration centered life.

In my mid-forties, I again made creative work my central business. This was going okay, despite the same old struggles, when my heart burst open with the call to monastic community, as I’ve already described. At the time I wondered, was this monastic call a way to fulfill my creative responsibilities? Perhaps in the financial security of monastic community, I’d finally free myself from fear.

Unfortunately the two calls were not compatible, at least in the monastery I entered. So here I am one more time, out in the big, scary world, struggling to live a creative call.

&@#*!Z%*! that Rilke!

* * * * *

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Vine, Branch, Fruit & Resurrection

Last night, a group of UUs exploring Christianity got onto resurrection. One said she liked the idea (common in liberal Christian circles) that the resurrection is all of us. When we live as Jesus lived, when we work for social justice, when we try to respond with love to everyone, even our enemies, then we are the resurrected presence of Jesus on earth.

Which reminded me of the Gospel verse, John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

Think about it.

The branches bear the fruit. So without branches, a vine is barren – nothing but an empty trunk. If a vine is to fulfill any kind of purpose, it must rely on the branches to bring that purpose about. Not only that, the vine gives support and supplies water and nutrients, yes. But the branches produce the leaves where chlorophyll is concentrated and sunlight is turned into food. So the branches feed the vine.

This is an indivisible whole. The vine supports and waters the branches. The branches feed the vine and bear the fruit.

A vine needs branches just as much as branches need a vine.



Note: Despite some lovely sayings, I’m none too fond of John’s Gospel - what with the way it has been foundational to Trinitarian, damnation versions of Christianity, as well promoting rabid anti-Semitism. But it was a favorite of some Gnostic Christians, so obviously there are other ways to read it than “Jesus≡God + Jesus worship and only Jesus worship prevents damnation + Jesus worship is the one and only point.”

Another note: “I AM" does create a loaded statement. It exploits a God name in the Hebrew Bible (God answered "I AM" when Moses asked the burning bush for a name). This could mean “God is the vine...” or “Jesus≡God is the vine...” But it could NOT have been written to mean a simple statement like “Jesus is the vine” in the way that “I (Elena) am nutsy for bible quotes” = “Elena is nutsy for bible quotes.”

I learned Hebrew as a teenager on a kibbutz. We were told there was no present tense of the verb “to be.” So thirty years later when I met the “I AM” name for God as I stumbled into Christianity, I was skeptical. Except not surprisingly, the actual words in Hebrew are convoluted, controversial and explosive – leaving much room for meditative illumination (i.e., interpretation). See analysis of “I AM at wikipedea or THE NAME OF GOD AS REVEALED IN EXODUS 3:14

Hmmmm… God’s own name for God-self - given in the story of the God-meeting of one who was to reinvigorate the God-relationship of a nation - is so strange and obscure that it is entirely open to interpretation. Maybe that does reflect some reality, after all.

* * * * * * *

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A Fire Marching Out in Front: Prairie Burning & Psalm 97

Psalm 97 has the line: “Fire marches out in front and burns up all resistance.” Another sister said this was like spiritual conversion. God’s fire burned our resistance. It felt awful, but opened us so God could move in.

Each of the monastery’s prairies had a burn cycle, from every year to every five years. By some fluke, they were all burned when I was in the novitiate. That line from psalm 97 ran in my head as I watched each prairie burn and grow green again.

One Tuesday afternoon in April, I accidentally happened on the first in mid-flame. I had just planned to take a quick break from my desk in the basement with a walk around the building. The oldest of the monastery’s prairies sloped below the front parking lot. A small plot bordered by mown path, it was primarily a mix of grasses. I never got past it.

As I rounded a corner, acrid smoke blew into my face. Near me, pale threads of smoke drifted up from black-charred ground. Beyond that, unburned grass waved in the wind as if nothing were going on – except that licks of fire flickered here and there in its midst. The little prairie was burning.

I hurried closer, not sure if this was supposed to be happening or not, but soon saw clumps of people in heavy, orange jumpsuits standing around holding brooms. Presumably there to beat out stray flames, they were mostly chatting amongst themselves. In fact, the atmosphere was decidedly relaxed - except for one man.

That man strolled through the grass, his attention focused on the boundary with the burned area. Every so often he made a slow, throwing motion, and a tongue of fire leapt from his hand. It raced gleefully away like a little beast, only to die moments later when it hit burned ground. It took awhile to see that the fire came from a spouted can the man held. In his absorption, the man looked like a painter studying his canvas, carefully laying color on one exact spot, then standing back to study it again.

Painting with fire. I was fascinated.

The head groundskeeper strolled over to me.

“Why doesn’t the man start the fire over there?” I asked pointing into the wind at the far end of the unburned prairie. “It would burn faster, all at once.”

“First we make a backburn to contain the blaze. The fire marshal will start a forward burn over there when it’s safe, “ the groundskeeper explained, “You should watch that. It’s worth seeing.”

“How long will it be?” I asked.

“Ohhh…” The groundskeeper’s attention left me. The gossiping beaters had missed a flame that was now burning into a bordering path. He hurried over to put it out.

I watched as the backburn inched forward. In my head, I whispered encouragement to each new flame. I wanted them to live, to bust out and take over, despite rational needs for safety. It was as frustrating as it was fascinating to watch the slow, cautious progress of the burn.

I was never any good at meticulous arts - like lithography or etching - that required layer after carefully constructed layer, with the effect only apparent at the end. I needed media that pushed back, demanded dialog, that I could to sink my hands into.

Luckily for me, the burn was almost done when I’d first arrived.

The groundskeeper came back to my side. “You should move to the end,” he said, “He’s about to start the forward burn.”

I trotted in the groundskeeper’s wake as he headed to the unburned end of the prairie.

The fire marshal took some time placing the beaters along the prairie edges. Then he walked around it, looking thoughtfully at the ground. Several times, he started another small fire, adding to the backburn. Finally he came close to where I was standing.

His back to the wind, the fire marshal gazed over the prairie for a few moments. Suddenly, he released the fire. It roared to life, racing through the grass with a whooshing bellow. He walked a few yards and let loose a second burst of flame.

Within seconds, the fires met and erupted in a brilliant, orange-yellow-gold tower higher than the ancient maple by the parking lot. Black smoke streamed like battle flags from the top as it raced along. And then it was over, except for a few wisps of smoke and tiny, red, burning bits that glimmered like jewels in a field of death. As the beaters patrolled the prairie making sure everything was put out, I went back to my desk.

The smell of smoke lingered to the next day. I walked into the burn, little spurts of ash puffing up under each footstep. I was surprised that many grass stems were only half burned. They lay bunched together, filling mini washes and gullies, as if they’d been bowled over in a flood. How odd that a blazing gale of fire had acted like flowing water on those stems.

Less than a week later, green shoots dotted the charred earth.

So: the metaphor?

In life, as in art, as in watching a burn, I’m impatient for the big whoosh of exhilarating conflagration. If there has to be fire, let it be overwhelming in power and beauty, even if that hurts more. But without a backburn, a prairie fire consumes everything indiscriminately – even more so in the wake of us European-Americans who refuse to let the land burn naturally. Of course, the fire will out, and the blaze when it comes is then more devastating.

Like those deep wounds that close us down instead of opening us up.

I know I need that pillar of fire, although I can (and often do) suppress the burning. Yet when I put it off, the awakening is likely to be shattering rather than a little shake-up.

So maybe the point is to embrace painful burning when it comes, yet prepare beforehand. (However annoying that may be for lackadaisical sorts like myself.) Practice little, daily habits. Consider conflict as it relates to your own, spiritual development instead of first pointing to other people’s sin. Hold with compassion your own human frailty as well as that of others.

Those are the backburn.

Then, contained and focused, your soul’s fire can burn off old, stuck patterns, while leaving good, strong roots from which new growth will soon spring.

* * * * *

Monday, May 05, 2008

Snow, Ticks, Spring

Despite the mini blizzard we had last week, it really is spring in south-central Wisconsin. After a long hiatus - about as long as since the last time I posted - I went to Liturgy of the Hours at the monastery, then took my dog for a ramble in the prairies. I pretty much stick to the paths, but...

Last week, no ticks. This week, after no more than five minutes in ankle-high grass: five ticks.

Yup. Spring. Gotta love it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Losing Winter's Order

Winter is my favorite season, but as I chipped at the ice of the last freezing rain/ice storm/blizzard of February, even I thought, “Enough is enough.” So for once I sympathized with those burdened by snow and cold. Recently, I heard such a person say she really disliked the loss of familiar markers and paths.

It had never before crossed my mind that this might be painful, because I’m delighted each year when square city lines disappear under amorphous snow piles.

In winter the choices of ordinary folks, and earth processes, swamp the plans of civic engineers. Sidewalks become sinuous channels narrowing and widening erratically. Getting to them means crossing diminutive mountain passes on twisty, one-foot-wide tracks – between parking meters buried up to their necks. Trails meander idiosyncratically over any large, flat space - a park, an unplowed walkway. The first to cross walked as they wanted and everyone else followed – previous footsteps offering some protection against sinking in deep.

My way home from high school crossed recent landfill. Wandering a snaking path across the snow, I imagined several miles thickness of ice below my feet, and that my destination was a handful of huddled yurts lost in a wintry waste as vast as space.

But I was raised by a woman who more than fulfilled her teenage goal of traveling the world. Holding back in fear of the unknown was not allowed to her children, and she never indulged our desire for familiar toys, clothes, food, homes, schools, friends or household routine. Not only did I follow my mother by traveling, even my scientific work explored trackless wilderness.

It takes a certain comfort with pathlessness to shuck the security of worldly success – job, house and social connections – for a monastery, especially when your family culture contains no such concept. Certainly, among those Catholic sisters I often felt as if I were in a country more foreign than any I’d lived in as a child. It was my mother's training that made it possible.

Of course, despite near-record snow piles, this winter has really been nothing compared to pre-global warming decades. We barely dipped below 0º F. In those years, we had several weeks of minus 40º. Then, our last blizzard was in mid-April - invariably canceling my youngest brother’s April 9th birthday party.

We may yet have another blizzard, but winter has lost its grip. During a handful of 40º days, rushing water filled the gutters as the snow mountains beat a retreat, baring strips of muddy grass buried months ago. On mornings moist with spring, mist hovered over the snow fields - thawed and refrozen into course granules. Like little glaciers, the melting snow gave up all it once carried in suspension: pebbles, branches, trash, city grit. Concentrated on a diminishing surface, debris turns the old piles a rough, dull black, and where their mountainous edges once pushed back the street, only minute moraines of rubbish are left.

All the winter-haters are lifting their heads to sniff the air, and planning gardens. Total strangers grin and greet each other with glad cries, excitedly chattering over winter’s end.

I try hard to smile back, but already I sorely miss the sharp clarity of ice cold.

And I hate to see the return of square-edged, human-made order. As the markers with which we claim the earth shake free of snow, we can once again imagine we own this place. But we don’t. Each winter we are offered a chance to see how a little nature undoes all we build, yet leaves us perfectly capable of surviving – if we bend our needs to the weather’s necessity.

The Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí said, “Straight lines belong to men, but curves belong to God.” We expend huge amounts of energy to maintain our little, spider web of straight-line roads across the globe, but all the while messy, exuberant, creative earth, and God, are the real bosses.

* * * *

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Practical Theology of Nonresistance

In “Prophetic nonviolence: Toward a Unitarian Universalist theology of war and peace," Paul Rasor notes that belief in nonviolence is theologically grounded. Proponents are convinced intuitively in the heart, not through rational argument.

This world view often results from direct, spiritual experience. I had just such a religious conversion. That's why I know I must learn to replace violence with radical nonresistance in all my dealings.

But even if arising intuitively from spiritual understanding, there are practical arguments to be made for radical nonresistance. For example, a cursory glance at history suggests that when violence is used to right social wrongs, it generally results in the exact kind of suffering it was meant to alleviate. The names of the characters change (e.g., who is oppressed and who has power), but the plot remains the same.

If violence is not an efficacious means of social progress, why not try something different - like nonresistance? It can’t work any worse.

There is also a “natural law” that observes: as energy meets resistance, it grows stronger. So, if you resist evil, you are strengthening evil (even if you alleviate some effects in the near-term). If you want evil to melt away, you stand up in the face of it, yes. You name it, yes. But you stand without resistance, and name without rancor - in complete, open, compassionate vulnerability.

hmmmm….

Do I act with that kind of radical nonresistance? Especially where it really counts, i.e., in daily responses to family members when my buttons have been pushed? Well…

No.

But I intend to & I practice, and that is a start. I’ve noticed that when I do manage to meet upset with compassion, not only am I less agitated, but so are others.

I imagine myself like a drop of water tossed in the middle of a crashing, storming sea, and desperate for calm. Which would bring more overall peace: whacking at the waves while screaming, “Calm down, dammit, just calm down!” or calming myself? If even one drop calms down, the whole sea is more peaceful.

HOWEVER: Although radical nonresistance is my personal belief, I wouldn’t want UUs to officially adopt any such policy (or Just War, for that matter).

For one thing, as Rasor points out, we do not have the religious basis - or the history of living out of this world view - that Quakers and Mennonites have. But more importantly, our great, UU strength is the original tenant that we can gather without the constraint of shared creeds. All war, Just War, conditional pacifism, radical nonresistance: we can be UU together – ‘though the arguments might get just a teensy bit heated at times.

Anything else is just another form of violence.


Footnote: What does “radical nonresistance” means to me? For an idea, here are some paraphrases of the not-your-status-quo-spirituality in the canonical Gospels:

"Don’t judge others. Don’t condemn others. The measure you give is the measure you receive. Don't resist evil. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Praise those who curse you. Whatever you do to the least of these you do to God. God's love is like the sun that shines equally on good and bad, just and unjust - to be whole as God is whole, love all without distinction. The kingdom (actually "Queendom" since the word is feminine in both Aramaic and Hebrew) is already here, inside and among you.
Focus on the log in your own eye; it is that which makes the Queendom invisible to you. Whoever would be great must be a servant. The low shall be high and the high shall be low. However you wish other people to act, act that way towards them first. The students will become like the teacher. Blessed are the peacemakers.

Die to your self that your self may live. Leave everything and follow. Renounce all that you have. Surrender all possessions – goods, social status, family roles and security. Sell what you have and give it to the poor. For those who have riches and are full (as in “not hungry”) will leave empty handed.
Go out and heal.

Which of you by being anxious can add to your life? If God dresses the wild flowers, why worry about what you will wear? Don't worry about what you will eat or drink. Take nothing. Stay where you are & eat what you are given. If you are not welcomed simply move on. Take care for what comes out of your mouth, only that can hurt you. Pray in secret, not to be seen.
Only those who do God’s will enter the Queendom, not those who cry, "Lord, Lord" (for God's will see above). By their works you will know them.”

* * *

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

From Radical Spirituality to State Religion: Justifying War

My attention was caught by a line near the beginning of Paul Rasor’s interesting article, “Prophetic nonviolence: Toward a Unitarian Universalist theology of war and peace” (UUWorld Spring Issue).

“The just war tradition… originated in the Catholic Church during the fourth century CE.”

“Ah ha!” I thought, demonic, amateur-historian’s gleam in my eye. “What major, MAJOR event happened in fourth century Christianity that might have necessitated creation of a “Just War” theology? Why that’s when a conquering emperor adopted as his state religion a multifarious, once-Jewish sect grounded in egalitarian community, extreme social justice and absolute, radical abandonment of violence for nonresistance.”

In other words, that’s when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, thus originating Christian orthodoxy. This included requiring all his soldiers to join the church. His… soldiers? Join a religion committed to nonviolence?

Huh?

Although his mom was Christian, Constantine himself didn’t seem to have been much of a believer. (For instance, he refused to be baptized until he was about to die.) It’s possible that, like a good pagan, he simply respected all possible gods. Once the Christian god helped him win the battle that made him emperor, he merely elevated that god’s worship. He didn’t seem to care about the details of the theology. He only demanded that there be one, unified set of beliefs, an “orthodoxy,” to be enforced by imperial law.

Except… As emperor of a huge, imperialist empire, he needed police, criminal prosecution, jails, capitol punishment, autocratic governors, laws that kept the rich rich and the poor poor - with ordered trade amongst them, and – most importantly – war. But these were aspects of social organization that Christians had traditionally stood against… (Although many offshoots had already moved from their radical roots into typical, patriarchal church organization - as witnessed by the spreading suppression of women within a century of Jesus’ death.)

Ergo the need to justify war.

Ahhhhh…..

As the teachings of Jesus were abandoned, a Christian “Just War theology” was born.


Footnote: There was then no “Catholic Church” (as in “Roman Catholic Church”) such as exists today. In the fourth century, members of the newly established, state church fought long and hard over exactly which of a multitude of beliefs would be called orthodox and which condemned as heresy. The center of church authority was also soon to reside, with the center of imperial power, in Constantinople. Although full of factions, orthodox Christianity had not yet split between Eastern Orthodox and Western Orthodox. …And there were lots of Popes.

* * *

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Do Not Lie. Do Not Do What You Hate.

In the Gospel of Thomas, the disciples ask Jesus, “Do you want us to fast? How shall we pray? Shall we give alms? What diet shall we observe?”

He answers, “Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate.”

Wow! That's all it takes?

“Do not do what you hate” has been interpreted as another wording for “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself.” But I imagine it means don't do anything you hate. Don’t do work you hate or foster relationships you hate, much less do to others what you’d hate to have done to you.

I’m pretty o.k. at that - in all senses.

(Of course, born into middle-middle class America, I was raised rich – compared to most of the world. So ‘though I presently make less than peanuts as a freelance writer, I feel I can afford job freedom. Yet, Jesus mostly spoke to those who could NOT afford to be picky about work and still expected they could follow his radical prescriptions.)

Only the thing is, I am absolutely crappy at telling the truth.

One of the old desert hermits, Abba Poemen, instructed spiritual seekers to “teach your mouth to say that which you have in your heart.” And he meant speak your true feelings all the time, not just when they were pretty.

Mega strike one for me.

Still, I’d thought I was pretty good at old-fashioned honesty in the marketplace.

I just found out I’m not too hot there, either.

I’m selling a used car. It's in great shape for its age (and Wisconsin), even starting immediately in our recent sub-zero weather - after sitting for four days. ...It only has this one, itsy, bitsy problem. The problem first showed up over a year ago. I considered it one of those annoying things that old cars can do. Anyway, it was intermittent. And ‘though the problem can be exceedingly annoying, the car always ran. So when it came time to sell, I pushed the problem from my mind.

The car sold quickly for a pretty nice price.

And I felt just awful.

Because I had not told the buyers about the problem before the sale.

“O.k.,” I argued to myself, “I bet that problem won’t even show up… Certainly not for awhile.” (Like it was ok as long as the buyer thought it was just bad luck when something went wrong a week or a month after they took it home.) “Even if it does show up, it’s probably no big deal. Besides, the price was less than the blue book value for that car with no problems. So it was fair.”

But all the dissembling in the world didn’t change anything. I’d known there was a problem with the car and I'd lied by not mentioning it. This might be good buyer-beware capitalism, but I knew perfectly well it was spiritual disaster – made obvious by the way I got busy lying to myself just so I could get away with lying to others.

Well, luckily for me, and the buyers, the problem showed up that very night. They returned the car. I returned their money, and made an appointment to have my mechanic deal.

Suddenly I felt a whole lot better, even with the prospect of futzing with this old car after I’d thought it was gone.

Then today, someone else called – although I’d pulled the ad. This time I told the whole truth. She drove the car and wants it - once we have an idea what is wrong and what it will take to fix. And I felt great dealing with her.

One of my oldest friends once told me, “I’d rather be taken advantage of than be the kind of person who takes advantage of people.” I’ve always wanted to live up to his standards. After this interesting experience, maybe I’m a small bit closer to doing so.

* * * * * *

Thursday, February 28, 2008

More On Psalm Cursing & Psalm 58

Most cursing psalms are laments or cries for social justice (or both). As such, the sentiments they express are quite familiar to modern ears. “I’m deeply wounded. The pain is killing me. I did nothing to deserve this. Those who hurt me are arrogant and greedy. Vicious, wicked people, they take advantage of the weak and poor, wantonly destroying anyone they can. Stop them. Make them nothing. Demolish them as they have demolished others.” And so on.

As my last post was on the snail melting line of psalm 58, here is a bit more about it.

Psalm 58 is a straight-out plea for social justice. It starts by condemning the wickedness of rulers (“the mighty” or “the gods” in some English translations - though notably, the King James twists this into “the congregation.” Wouldn’t do to let the ruled to get wrong ideas about the rulers!).

From the New International Version (except they just lo-o-o-ve semi-colons. There’s no punctuation in the Hebrew so I put in periods. I also changed “men” to “people.”):

“Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge uprightly among people? No. In your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth. Even from birth the wicked go astray. From the womb they are wayward and speak lies. Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, that will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skillful the enchanter may be.”

Many good-heated, modern people shake with similar, indignant passion as they consider the suffering caused by the greedy rich and self-important powerful. I have friends and family who speak at least that harshly of the present US administration. They fervently wish for results not unlike those desired by the psalm writer:

“Break the teeth in their mouths, O God. Tear out the fangs of the lions! Let them vanish like water that flows away. When they draw the bow, let their arrows be blunted. Like a slug melting away as it moves along, like a stillborn child, may they not see the sun.” (Note: this translation makes the whole snail/slug slime thing a little more transparent.)

And many virulent Bush haters have no less violent of a vision for the future than that of the writer who ends this psalm:

“Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns - whether they be green or dry - the wicked will be swept away. The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. Then people will say, ‘Surely the righteous still are rewarded. Surely there is a God who judges the earth.’”

It all depends on who you call wicked and who righteous… And what you think causes suffering and what you think will end it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Melt, Snail, Melt! A Psalm Curse

Recently, I’ve been writing about the cursing psalms. Then I read this quote on the portal page of MYTH*ING LINKS:
Almost all of us are gasping for more time. We are starving. And all of the devices and techniques that our inventive culture offers only increase the yearning for time - like the food of Hell that makes the eater hungrier. Our cell phones, computers, fax machines, and the countless other inventions that "save time" only starve us more and more... We are paying for these things with our time, with our lives, which is our time. - Jacob Needleman, in Time and the Soul, page 63
This reminded me of the famous curse line from psalm 58: “As a snail melts, let them pass away.”

The line is famous for being more than a little peculiar, if not completely senseless. But it made sense to the psalm writer. Supposedly, Mesopotamian people of that time believed that snails create slime trails by liquefying a bit of their own bodies. In order to move along, a snail had to melt itself. It used itself up until there was nothing left (which nicely explained why gardens are littered with empty snail shells.) So the curse is: may your actions be self-consuming, eating you up until you vanish.

Not bad, eh?

But as spiritual teachers have been pointing out literally for ages, this is exactly what human obsessions entail.

Common snailIn modern America we cry out for time, and become addicted to technology that destroys time under the guise of giving it to us. Once we could peacefully wait an hour or a day to phone again if a person we called did not answer. Now we are impatient, even insulted, if we must wait a few seconds or our messages are not immediately returned. An hour, a full day, has been compressed, lost, become seconds.

Those biblical curse-writers! They sure knew their human foibles.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Lenten In The Morning

Lent was not on my radar this year. Not that it’s ever been big in my life. In fact, I had my first Lent in 2003 just months before entering the monastery. That year I gave up children’s books - my most persistent addiction. I wanted a clean wind to blow through the space left by giving them up. Which actually happened.

A good (Catholic) friend said that Lent was a chance to identify one thing that kept you from God and practice changing it. This might mean giving up a habit – like addictive reading. But it could equally well mean adding one – like walks in the woods.

Lacking reading distraction during my first Lent, I entered a sort of spiritual hermitage. Traditionally hermits lived in stark places. This one had the reverberating emptiness of the high plains: miles of prairie under an arching sky with a strong wind blowing. Unbroken from horizon to horizon, the prairie sky is the presence of God, and that wind is God’s breath.

But let’s face it. Hanging out in The Presence is as terrifying as it is exhilarating. Which explains why I generally opt for avoidance activities over paying attention.

Still, that year I lost myself in Presence and by Easter felt all shiny fresh and clean.

This lasted about 3 months. Then I realized I was but a month from loosing my independent, worldly life (I thought) forever. Ack! I dove into children’s books and hid. Occasionally, I’d come up for breath and putter a bit at packing, then dive under again. Of course, I did finally manage it, letting go of my job, home, car and stuff (imagine dumping a fifty-years’ accumulation of books, clothes, furniture, dishes and jewelry, not to mention a huge doll collection).

So. All in all, my first Lent was pretty great. Lent in the monastery was also pretty great, although by then I was a novice and the cracks were showing.

After I was kicked out, I was just as heartsick for the liturgical year as I was for the Liturgy of the Hours. But it hurt to touch and so no Lent.

Things are better now and I decided I might as well mosey on down to the monastery and get my little thumb print of forehead ash. But I had no idea of doing anything for it.

Well…

We had a monster ice storm + blizzard on Ash Wednesday. The monastery closed along with almost everything else (except the idiot university). But I got a call from my friend with the idea that Lent is about getting to God not giving stuff up. She explained her reasoning and we read a couple of the lectionary pieces together.

Then I knew.

A confirmed night-person, in the monastery I struggled to drag myself out of bed by 6:30. But I liked how it felt so ever since, I have tried - absolutely unsuccessfully - to continue this. My latest attempt was a New Year’s resolution: “My day starts at 6:30.”

Which failed.

So for Lent, my day starts at 6:30. And this time, it has actually succeeded. Not that I’ve gotten out of bed at 6:30 every day but more than half so far, and every day has started earlier.

Practice. Practice. It is enough.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

In The Demons’ House


In The Demons’ House

To experience a "demon house," you don't need some just-bought, never-gonna-fix-‘er-upper, much less one inhabited by spooky, little girls. Nah. For demon encounters of the spiritual kind, the most ordinary and uneventful of houses will do.

Most of my life, I had the romantic notion that desert hermits ran to stark, marginal environments for the quiet. Only it turns out peace and quiet were the exact opposite of what Syncletica, Evagrius and the other early Christian hermits sought in the desert. Nope. What they wanted was a fight. An all-out, no-holds-bared, knock-down, drag-out battle with demons. They went to the desert because that was where the demons lived.

In fact, the story goes that St. Antony renounced comfort, sex and family by moving into an abandoned desert fort. Once there, his demon desires for these were so strong they literally beat him unconscious.

You want to fight demons with no way to run and hide? Move into the demons’ house. And you don't need a desert. They are more than happy to face you anywhere you choose.

sigh.

My creative energy was fueled by the narrowly-focused, pared-down life of the monastery. Before, it had been like a leaping, playful fire: lots of form and color, but no intensity. After a year of monastic confinement, it had the white-hot brilliance of a hurricane lamp.

Forced out of the cloister, I didn't know if I could maintain that creative fire. And I didn't know if I had the courage to live wholly from my spiritual center - without the financial security offered by community life.

Yet, I resisted the desire to immediately jump into a decent-paying, middle class job – the kind I'd had for most of my post-graduate life. It had taken entering a monastery for me to find the courage to shuck all that in the first place. I didn’t want to immediately load myself up again.

Because I can use a job and house to generate unlimited excuses not to write.

It was in making this choice that I found I had moved into the demons’ house. I do some freelance work - consulting and teaching - but dedicate my time & energy to writing. So by and large, I can’t say, “Of course I will write, but after I get this report done or that pile of papers marked because they are due tomorrow.”

With no externally imposed musts and shoulds, I have no cover story to disguise immobilizing habits, destructive thought-patterns and addictive, emotional fogs - and no insurance against the fear of financial failure. Instead, in each day’s effort to write, I must marshal my spiritual forces and struggle with these, my demons, raw and undiluted.

Strange. I have never lacked food, shelter or a comfortable bed. I even have a car and a dog. My environment is about as far from “inhospitable desert” as one can get. Yet here my demons are and here I am, in their house, facing them every day without protection.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Women's Voices IV: More on Amma Syncletica

I have already posted twice about my favorite desert mystic, Amma Syncletica. She offers an amazing, no-nonsense voice for spiritual practice - with heart. So here are few more of her sayings. For background go to Amma Syncletica, Part I. The Story, and I posted others of her sayings in the context of my experience at Amma Syncletica, Part II. Some Sayings.

You’ll notice that Syncletica (like Antony & Evagrius and other early Christian, desert hermits) described the struggle to detach from desires (or ego) as a fight with demons. The Enemy, of course, was Satan. As a good little Universalist, I don’t buy the whole Satan theory, yet there is still something apt in this.

I often feel like something has got hold of me and is dragging or tricking or seducing me into places I don't want to go. No matter what practices I do, I am still blindsided by waves of bitter resentment or preening pride. I may assume these “demons” all arise from inside me, but they sure can feel like an external attack. Also, it’s sort of comforting to imagine they are demon attacks. Then rejection has no if, ands or buts to it.

O.k. enough of my thoughts. Here are some sayings, uninterrupted except that I extracted bits from longer text. If you read the original, you might find other meanings by making different emphases. (All from the translation of Syncletica's Life by Elizabeth Bryson Bongie.)

# 22 “Whatever people say …that is useful springs from love and ends in it. Salvation, then, is exactly this – the two-fold love of God and of our neighbor.”

#23 “The person who has once given assent to what is less than good is unable to stand firm even in little matters, but is carried off, so to speak, into the pit of destruction… [and] is judged like a soldier that deserts; he is not awarded pardon because he left for a less strenuous campaign.”

#25 “Through our senses, even if we are unwilling, ‘thieves’ enter. How indeed can a house not be blackened if smoke from outside is wafting about and the windows are open?”

#26 “The more athletes make progress the more they are matched with stronger opponents… Were you victorious over actual, physical sexual impurity? …[The Enemy] continues to lurk in the crannies of your mind … conjuring up handsome faces and old relationships… [do] not give your assent to these fantasies.”

#30 “Just as heavy clothing is washed and bleached by treading and vigorous wringing, so also the strong soul is strengthened by voluntary poverty. But those with a weaker disposition have the opposite experience… When they are rubbed a little, they disintegrate like torn garments, not lasting through the wash… Although the fuller may be the same, the outcome for the clothes is different; some are torn and perished while another is bleached and renewed.”

#31 “It is essential to be trained in austerities… For those who have… suddenly rushed into rejecting their possessions are generally seized with regret.”

#32 “possessions are the ‘tools’ of a life devoted to pleasure. Take away first the ‘trade’ (soft living) and you will also be able easily to dispense with the material aspect… possessions; it is difficult… if the ‘trade’ is going on for the ‘tools’ to be absent.”

#34 “Just as domestic animals in the performance of their particular tasks are satisfied only with the nourishment needed to sustain life, so also those who practice poverty consider the use of silver worthless and they do their manual work in return for their daily nourishment alone. These people possess the foundation of faith… [by] not taking thought for the morrow.”

#35 “[To] those who live without possessions [the Enemy] lacks the means to do harm, since the majority of our griefs and trials originate in the removal of possessions. Can he burn their estates... lay hands on their dear ones? To these too they long ago said good-bye.”

#36 “[Vices] bring about their own destruction out of their very nature. For in bringing evil that is insatiable… their wound is incurable. The one who has nothing desires little, and on acquiring this little reaches for more. One has a hundred gold coins and longs for a thousand, and after acquiring these raises his sights, ad infinitum… Unable to establish their limit, they constantly lament their poverty.”

#37 “It would be a great advantage if, in our search for genuine wealth, we could endure as many tribulations as those hopelessly damaging ones that ‘hunters’ of empty worldliness encounter… But if ever we… do experience some little gain, we puff ourselves up, pointing it out to the people… In addition, we fail to include in our account what really happened. Those people… keep going after more; they count as nothing what they already have… Even though we possess nothing of what was being sought, we call ourselves rich.”

#38 “We must make every effort, then, to keep our gain hidden. Those who are describing their own successes should also try to mention the weaknesses that go with them… Those who live in virtue act in the opposite way; they describe their small lapses along with some extras they did not commit, thus rejecting the good esteem of people while concealing their good acts… Just as wax melts in the presence of fire, so also does the soul disintegrate in the face of praises and loose its vigor.”

#39 “If praise removes the vigor of the soul, then assuredly, censure and insult lead the soul to heights of virtue.”

#41 “We should not think that anyone in life is free from care… Every sprig of virtue grows straight as a result of pains… [in secular life] When they are not honored, they are sad; when they yearn for what belongs to another, they pine away; when they are poor, they feel distressed; when they are rich, they become obsessed; unable to sleep for watching over their possessions.”

#42 “Let us [hermit] women not be misled… Perhaps in comparison [those in the world] struggle more than we do. For towards women generally there is great hostility in the world… Let us not be deluded… that their life is easy and carefree.”

#43 “Just as one diet is not suitable for all animals, the same instruction is not suitable for all people. Those who find satisfaction in contemplation and gnosis are nourished in one way, while those who have a taste for asceticism and ascetic practice are nourished in another way, and similarly those in the world who practice good works to the best of their ability.”

#45 “Like a ship our soul is sometimes engulfed by the waters without and is sometime swamped by the bilge-water within… And so we must guard against onslaughts of spirits from outside us, and bail out impurities of thoughts inside us… Against the storm waves outside salvation often comes from ships nearby when the sailors cry out for help; but bilge-waters overflow and frequently kill the seamen, often when they are asleep and the sea is calm.”

Saturday, February 09, 2008

A Perscription For Joy


“Keep Death before your eyes.” It's a common enough spiritual injunction. But the point of meditating on death is not to feel solemn or gloomy. It is a prescription for joy.

Like many spiritual practices that seem dour – to those who haven’t tried them – this is but one more, deceptively simple and very effective means of achieving what we seek: happiness, freedom, peace, and love of our neighbors. And we don’t have to become saints, first, either. Even my kind of never-remotely-perfect practice can bring us ordinary folks increased happiness, etc. - right now, in this life, as who we already are.

Recently a couple of psychologists have thrown their experimental weight behind this effect.

In Psychological Science (18: 984-990), Nathan DeWall and Roy Baumeister published the results of experiments to explore “coping strategies” when faced with mortality. Their paper is called, From Terror to Joy: Automatic Tuning to Positive Affective Information Following Mortality Salience. (oh, my!) For a lay explanation see ScienceDaily.

Volunteers meditated on dying and being dead. (Of course, if you happen to remember dying, as I do, you may think of the release of death as a bursting fountain of joyful light.)

A control group meditated on excruciating dental work. (Ack! Who wouldn’t find death happier?)

Anyway, both sets of volunteers then took word tests designed to tap into their emotions. One example was completing the word “jo_”. Those who got to meditate on death were significantly more likely to pick a happy word like “joy,” while the controls picked a neutral word like, “job.” There were also word associations like choosing to pair “puppy” with either “beetle” or “parade.” The death folks more often choose happier associations, like “parade.”

So. Volunteers preoccupied with death weren't gloomy. They weren’t even neutral. Instead they showed joyful, emotional associations (at least compared to folks meditating on icky pain).

The psychologists suggest this means the brain involuntarily activates pleasurable memories in order to cope with trauma or threats. (The findings also explain why “a delay is often necessary to produce effects in line with terror management theory” – hmmmm.)

Being empiricists, of course the psychologists describe this brain response as coping with a bad, not as a creative, spiritual good. And maybe they are right. Perhaps this evolved as a coping strategy. But we can still opportunistically take advantage and use it as a tool for positive, spiritual development.

(This is common in evolution. The new can only be got by remaking the already-in-existence. So things that evolved for one use are often developed for another… Like the standing-upright work our spines are adapted to do - 'though they are a very poor design for it. Trouble is, we and our spines evolved from fish (and before that, a segmented worm-critter). Our spines remake a backbone first evolved for flexible swimming - the body buoyed up in water and everything hanging down. No wonder I hurt after fifty-odd years of gravity grinding one bone another. Ouch!)

Anyway, there you have it: “keep death before your eyes” and experience joy.

...'Though I must admit the practice of letting go, as in death, releasing the grasp of possessions - of body, mind and personality... that ain't always pretty.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Forgiveness: Can We Will It or Does It Take Grace? II.

Warnings not to take candy from strangers don’t help most victimized children, as anyone who is paying attention knows. Because the vast majority are sexually attacked by people they know: fathers, stepfathers, uncles, older brothers, and family friends. Yet, some children are raped by strangers - even if they constitute a small percentage of the total.

Such was I. (If you’d like to read a story about it, go to Something That Happened.)

Not that I remembered, of course. In true, post-traumatic stress fashion, I buried the memory. Also in true, post-traumatic stress fashion, I acted out the physical and psychological effects in every aspect of my life. By my late twenties, those effects had given me: 1) intense insomnia – I rarely slept more than four hours a night and was often awake for days, 2) suicidal depression.

Eventually, I sought help. At first, only for sleep. Most of the counselors I saw stuck to that agenda - advising sleep aids and strategies.

None worked.

By the time I started my Ph.D., I was on my fourth or fifth counselor. Phoning her I said, “I don’t have any real problems. I just can’t sleep."

But Mrs. Julian was different. She didn’t take me at my word. “It was something about your voice,” she later told me. “I knew there was more going on.”

A few minutes into our first appointment she asked, “Do you deserve to live?” That took the lid off the worm can. I discovered I was depressed, and that given my druthers, I'd be dead.

Following my Ph.D. adviser, I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. This turned out to be a very good thing, because there I met Kristin Huige, and she saved my life.

For the next 6 years, I averaged thirteen hours every week in therapy: one individual appointment and two, weekly groups plus a "therapy training" weekend every month and the occasional 3-day retreat.

I worked much harder on therapy then on my Ph.D. I had to. A good day meant getting out of bed and as far as the couch. On bad days I never got up.

A large part of depression is unacknowledged anger turned against one’s self. The hardest thing in therapy was letting the little girl I had been feel and express her anger towards those who had hurt her: the man who raped her, the parents who didn’t protect her, and the society that created both.

Forgiving them was the furthest thing from my mind. I didn’t want to, saw no need to, and if anyone had suggested that I should, I would have blasted that person forwards, backwards and sideways.

Six years later, in the fall of 1988, I graduated, from therapy and the Ph.D. program – which was not exactly an accident since I would have to leave Ann Arbor to get a job.

Six years is incredibly fast for sexual abuse therapy. I used to complain to Kristy, “Why do you make me work so hard? Some people have been seeing you for decades and you just let them coast along.”

She replied, “I have to push you because when you graduate, you’ll be gone.” Then she paused, considering, “And besides, you’ll rise to the challenge. You might kick and scream, but you’ll do the work. Most others would run away.”

What gift was I given that I could take the fast track? So many go round and round, forward a bit, then back again until witting or unwitting suicide takes them - as it had my friend Ana. Were my injuries simply less severe? Or was my soul dedicated to dragging me through this thing - no matter how much the healing hurt - while theirs had reasons to stay in the injury, working it until they died?

Not that I thought it was a gift at the time. I was jealous of those whose pain swamped them enough that they could open the "back door" and leave life for good.

When I left Ann Arbor, I was on the upslope. A few years later, I emerged into a whole new country. For the first time since forever, life was good. Oh I still had problems, and was sad, lonely, hurt and frustrated. But my background, rest state was not a stinking pit of darkness. It was light.

Forgiveness was still nowhere in my mind or desire.

I knew the guy who raped me must have been an abused child himself. I still blamed him, was enraged at him, and fantasized about stomping him into a bloody pulp.

Five years passed and a funny thing happened. When my mind drifted to the guy, I felt sympathy. I was sorry he’d been hurt, although I was even sorrier he felt the need to pass his hurt on to other kids. I was still angry. It had been his act, his choice, and he was evil. It wasn’t forgiveness, but it was... Something.

A year or so later, I was snuggling on the couch with my cat when my mind wandered down the old track past thought of the guy.

By that time, I liked myself and was proud of my entire history - especially traversing the murky shadow-land of suicidal depression. I appreciated my injuries. It was better to have traveled that dark way than to have been less hurt to start with. It taught me compassion. It taught me fearlessness in the presence of other people’s pain. It taught me to listen with the "ears of my heart" - one of Benedict's prime directives.

I wanted no other children to be raped, but I was not at all sorry I had been.

That evening as my mind turned to the man who did it, I was shocked to realize there was no anger left in me. I felt as sad for the man - the hurt boy he had been and the hurt man he grew up into - as I still felt for my child self.

I thought, “If he was right here, right now, all I would want would be to hug him, to alleviate his pain.”

And so, unbidden and unexpected, I discovered forgiveness.

I was twenty-five when I started down the long, hard, dangerous road into the land of ash. By thirty, surviving and healing depression was my life’s work. I would have avoided it if I could, but it was heal or die and some part of me choose life - which meant feeling all the raw grief, hurt, fear, and anger. It meant expressing them without concern for what was “nice” or “selfless” or “good.”

I never willed forgiveness. I never choose forgiveness. I never wanted forgiveness. It just happened - after twenty years on the slow, tortuous climb into and out of the pit.

Forgiveness: It comes as a grace. Yet without preparation, there is no ground for that grace to appear. Doing your inner work - opening, facing and healing your old wounds - tills that ground. Then grace, and forgiveness, can enter.

* * * * * *

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Something That Happened

This story was based on my recovered memories of childhood rape. Written in a child's voice, it was originally published in 1991 in Calyx, Art and Literature by Women (13:72-74).

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Two years ago when I was five, my family went camping in the fall. It was really sunny out. Everything smelled like fall and leaves were coming down. I had to go to the toilet. The toilets were kind of far away from our campsite, but I didn't mind. I like to be by myself so I can think about things.

I walked right through every pile of leaves on the path to the toilets.

I thought, “Maybe when leaves turn colors it is because fires come from the sun and light them up. At first the trees don't want to burn and try to stay green, but the fire spreads and soon they're all burning. After a while, there's so much sun-fire in the trees they can't hold it and it falls to the ground. Then everything burns with sun-fire.”

I think maybe fall is my favorite time.

Then I went into the toilets. It was dark inside and it smelled damp and, you know, like toilets smell. Not very good.

I didn't know it, but there was a man in there. He came up behind me and he knocked me down. He was wearing a red, plaid shirt and he was big. Big head, big hands, big everything. Much bigger than me. I think I could have walked between his legs without ducking. I was so scared I didn't make a sound, not a squeak.

He got down on top of me and he held me on the ground.

He said, “Don't make noise or I'll kill you.”

The cement floor was hard behind my head and my back and under my hands. It felt gritty dirty. And cold. And damp. The white toilet bowl hung over my head: hard and cold, with nothing to hold onto, like someone who doesn't care what happens.

The man had black hair and a fat face, and black hairs standing up on the backs of his hands. Thick, black hairs like pins standing up all along the back of his hands, even on his fingers. He was pulling on my clothes and he pulled down my underpants. Then he put his hand down there. His big fingers like dry sandpaper with pins on it were pushing in. It hurt. It really hurt bad and his breath smelled.

Then, I didn't want to see anymore. I didn't want to know anymore. I didn't want to feel anymore.

So I just left.

I floated away. Up, up, up, up, up. I thought, “I will just float all the way away.” But I got stuck at the ceiling. So I had to hang up there by the ceiling and watch.

All I could see was his back. He was heaving around on top of something. I couldn't see what it was because he was so big and it was so small. Small and flat. Small and flat and dead. Just a flat, dead rag-thing that he was pushing at and tearing at.

Only suddenly I was back down there and he said, “I'll choke you if you bite me.”

He put his hands around my neck and he started to choke me. Just to show he meant it, I guess. Then he put his thing in my mouth. I wouldn't have bitten him anyway because only live things can bite. Dead, torn rag-things can't bite. And dead, torn rag-things don't need to scream because they can't feel anything.

When he was all finished, he left. I guess he thought he killed me, but I was just pretending to be dead.

My mom was standing by the picnic table and she was cooking. We have this green, camping stove. She was standing in front of it and when she saw me she said, “Would you like to help me set the table, Honey?”

You know how it is sometimes when everything seems so far away you couldn't touch it even if you stretched and stretched, but at the same time everything is rushing by so close and fast it is like trains booming past your ears? I felt like that.

I thought, “Why is she talking about setting the table when everything is broken all to pieces?” But I guess she didn't know. I didn't say anything about it either.

I was like that doll my sister got in Chinatown. The doll had a box on her tummy. When you pressed it, she would go “Maa, Maa.” Then the box broke and no matter how you pressed, she couldn't make a sound, not even a little squeak.

My mom kept on talking to me. I felt like I couldn't understand what she was saying, but I helped her set the table.

Then I thought, “Maybe I am really dead. Maybe everything is dead.” I decided if I'm really dead than that man was just a dream. It didn't happen for real.

When we got home I found out that there is a giant clam that lives in the toilet. If you don't wash your hands before the toilet finishes flushing, it will come out and grab you and drag you down there. Also, if you don't get dried off before the water is out of the bathtub.

Sometimes I barely make it. I yell, “Time! Time! Time!” and I run out into the living room where I feel safe. Of course, I don't yell it out loud, just in my head, because if anybody knew they'd say, “stop acting like a baby.” Then my chest is all tight and my throat closes up like it is just a tiny thread I can't get any air through, so I lean across the back of the couch and pretend to watch TV.

I hate toilets. Even though I'm way too old to pee in my pants, sometimes I'd rather do that then go into a strange toilet. And sometimes I see this knife or this scissors that is cutting off my fingers. I try and try, but I can't get it to stop. I recite “Mary had a little lamb” and “Peter piper,” but it won't stop. It just won't stop.

I don't want to think about this any more. It makes me want to scream and scream. Only, I can't scream. I can't even talk. No noise can come out, not even a little squeak.

Anyway, I know that I'm not alive for real. I'm not sure about other people. Maybe they aren't alive either. I do o.k., though sometimes it seems silly to go on pretending to be alive. But I'll tell you one thing, I don't like boys. If I was alive, I would want all the boys to be dead.


© R. Elena Tabachnick 1991

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Forgiveness: Can We Will It or Does It Take Grace? I.

In Christian history there is this long tussle between those who insist that we get to God through good works (and a good life) and those who insist God enters us through grace alone – no works of ours having made a bit of difference. That last was one of Luther’s big deals. It seems he felt so crappy about himself that all the good work, good living and consuming prayer he practiced didn’t help. Then one day (or night) -> poof <- God entered him and cleared out all the crud. For the rest of his life, he insisted “by Grace alone…”

Yet for some people good works have, well, worked... despite the insistence of those like Luther who’ve experienced divine relief as a pure gift.

This suggests there is not really an argument to be had here. Both must be true.

As in the story Bo Lozoff tells about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (It's a Meaningful Life - It Just Takes Practice).

Once the Rabbi said, “Full experiences of God can never be planned or achieved. They are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental.”

Puzzled, Bo Lozoff asked, “Rabbi, if God-realization is just accidental, why do we work so hard doing all these spiritual practices?”

To which Rabbi Carlebach replied, “To be as accident-prone as possible.”

There it is: grace and works. In fact, grace after works or grace with works.

This matches my experience of forgiveness.

It’s that time of year for me. Valentine’s day. The date when my then best friend was overwhelmed by the pain of her childhood abuse. She killed herself, as I described in my last post. So my thoughts naturally turn to my own story of recovery from the wounds of childhood rape

This is also the story of how I inexplicably experienced forgiveness.

In my next post, I will share a published story based on my child’s experience of rape. Then I will describe the aftermath, and how that led to forgiveness.

* * * * * *

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Survival - A Valentine's Remembrance

Neither of my friends Ana and Jim,survived in the end, although they both lived a long time trying.

On Valentine’s Day, 1991, Ana put a plastic bag over her head, lay down on her bed, and suffocated. She was 39. In the winter of 1992, Jim put a gun to his temple and blew a hole in his brain. He was 59.

Technically, they aren’t “survivors,” but how long does one have to struggle on to qualify as having survived? Does thirty years count? Forty? Is it only how we die that matters, only at that last moment that any of us can be said to have made it, to have “survived”?

Consumed by overwhelming flashbacks, Ana often lost all sense of her real-time life and the present-day people in it. She wandered into heavy traffic, bought sleeping pills with the idea of overdosing, and was repeatedly hospitalized.

Jim used to drive wildly, fantasizing about having an accident. He smoked, took drugs, and worked in an OSHA-violating machine shop where he was constantly injured.

As a young man, Jim had lost a wife and baby daughter to heavy drinking. He let his anger out by  abusing those he cared for and starting fights until he bottomed out on the street, living only to drink. He later described himself as a hard, nasty man--a racist and a bigot. That is a story we have all heard too many times. What was different about Jim was that after two years on the street, he woke up one day and said, “I have got to change. I have got to find a way to live.”

Jim checked himself into VA detox, then got a job and an apartment. He saved money and saw a therapist. By the time I knew him ten years later, Jim was a model of gentleness and compassion. Absolutely trustworthy, he felt other peoples' pain as deeply as his own. He took in psychotic cats and offered support to injured women without the slightest hint of wanting anything in return.

When Ana’s demons first took her life, she was on the way to success. She had a good marriage, her Ph.D. in a hard, physical science was almost completed, and she had the respect of her peers. Then the long-buried memories of childhood abuse burst out.

Ana was institutionalized for schizophrenia. What else could explain a woman screaming, muttering to herself as she stomped down the street, or breaking into churches? But an amazing psychiatrist asked Ana to describe her hallucinations and realized they were actually flashbacks. The easiest memory came out at that time. It was of her father's one-time sexual attack.

Unfortunately, the first was not the last. Over the years, new triggers brought up new memories, each more awful than the ones that went before, but despite the times her past rose up to drown her, Ana finished her degree. She landed a hot, government, research position in a tight job market where most science Ph.D.s went unemployed or underemployed for years, published often, and traveled the international, academic circuit arguing for her ideas.

Jim worked as a machinist, but he dreamed of being an artist. At the Toledo Museum's art school, he studied drawing, painting and metal sculpture. He exchanged care of the metal shop for studio hours, and when students needed help they came to him first. He was never too busy, and unlike so many art professors, never needed to bolster his ego by putting students down. He was as kind and humble with students as he was with injured women and cats.

Finally, Jim felt secure enough in his new self to take the big risk. He quit his job and spent his life savings to be a full-time artist. Jim had taught himself to blow glass. Because he had no money, he traded his help for glass colors and scrounged color scraps that richer students threw away. With only bits of any one color, his glass pieces were streaked with swirling rainbows.

Jim had picked himself up from the gutter and changed his life--something few can do. He grew into the fully feeling, creative person he was born to be. But his demons--born in childhood beatings and a mother's insistent, sexual abuse--never slept. Like Holland with its dikes against the sea, his life needed to be constantly defended against their attacks.

After a year, his money was gone. Jim had gotten paid work on some local civic sculptures--welding parts or fixing patinas--but didn't make much. He had to return to the machine shop. It was the beginning of the end.

Jim abandoned therapy, hid from friends, and sank beneath the numbing waters of drugs and drinking. Then one dark dull winter night, he shot himself . He was so isolated by that time that his body lay for five days in his apartment before anyone noticed.

What is it that lets one person out of thousands find the will to change? What greater achievement could there be than to rise up out of your inner hell and the literal gutter, give up the numbing blanket of drugs, and grow into yourself despite the hurt that consciousness brings? What could be more admirable, whatever the final outcome?

At times Ana faced her past. She let herself remember pain that had been so intense her soul vacated her little girl's body tied to a bedpost, floating up to watch from far away. She let herself feel the betrayal inherent in parents' and grandparents’ abuse, a betrayal that hurt worse than the most terrible physical pain.

At other times Ana refused to deal with her past, angrily shoving those memories away. She WOULD NOT let them devour her creative energy or her ability to love. Yet this was a failing proposition. Left to act out of her unhealed trauma, there were days when she could not enter a room of men, although she worked in a science where almost everyone was a man.

Ana's rigidly rational male-scientist co-workers had nothing but contempt for extended medical leaves and intermittent phobic outbreaks. Of course, they never knew what the problem was. It was enough that she lacked their prized, competitive edge. Besides, her lack was their gain. In the spirit of laissez-fare, zero-sum, scientific competition, others gleefully built their reputations by trashing hers.

Still, between one psychotic break and another were long stretches of calm. Then Ana read widely, cultivated interesting friendships, and spent weekends leading school children through science adventures. She explored Zen, took snapshots of everyone and everything, and loved to walk in a local beaver marsh.

The last calm before her death had lasted several years. Her husband began to hope that, maybe, the worse was over. It wasn’t. When her past re-asserted itself, it demanded her whole attention. She was mentally lost for weeks.

Ana came to herself in a psych ward. There she finally faced the truth: no mental walls are thick enough to block the past. She would not be free until she faced it, all of it. Only if she worked through her childhood trauma could she truly heal.

For many years, Ana had found ways to live injured while healing only lesser hurts. Finally, she committed to the last dangerous trial. It might take years, even decades, and there were no guarantees.

Severe childhood abuse is like a terrible burn covering most of the body. The injury hurts in a way that cannot be imagined by those who haven't experienced it. The cure hurts just as much and goes on longer. Sometimes, burn survivors beg to be allowed to die instead. At every step of healing, abuse survivors risk being swallowed by their desire to escape through death.

What greater courage could there be than to choose to put oneself through the torture of healing? To keep going when it would be so much easier to hide, and when it is only your own stubborn will that keeps bringing the pain down on you? Only the very brave and very desperate agree to such a cure.

My own experience of being raped as a child was like being burned on no more than my hands and feet. That was bad enough. I teetered on the edge of suicide for years as I uncovered and healed my past. I'm lucky. I survived long enough to discover how great life can be.

Ana started that journey. She didn’t make it out the other side.

At her funeral, her husband said, "In her life, Ana had to climb a high range of mountains. She'd made it through the foothills. She'd climbed the lower slopes. Along the way she found people who could help. Others had gone before and pointed out trails. Then she reached the last assent before the top, but it was the steepest--a sheer cliff. Again there were people to help. Others were in front and to either side offering their hands, ready to guide her to the next toehold. She started up. But a fog came down and engulfed her. She couldn't see the other people and forgot they were there. Alone in the fog on that cliff, she lost her hold, slipped and fell."

Strangely, at her funeral one of Ana's hatefully competitive scientific colleagues wept and begged for forgiveness. He hadn't realized how much she was suffering.

In the end, both Ana and Jim killed themselves. But is that failure? After all, they survived for years-- more than survived. They lived and loved and gave and created, despite the terrible gaping wounds they carried. After years of struggle, they lost their grip. Do they not still deserve the admiration of those who admire survival? Can they not still claim the highest badge of courage?

When we heal ourselves, we heal the universe--whether we manage a little or a lot. Our motivation may seem selfish, but our work serves everyone.

Ana and Jim, my loves, thank you for the great gifts you gave us.

You both deserve the richest and warmest of Valentine's hearts.

* * * * * *

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Women's Voices III: Rabi’a al Basri

One of the greatest Sufi mystics was Rabi’a al-'Adawiyya who lived in Basra, Iraq in the second half of the 8th century AD. She left no written works. Most of the information about her comes from Farid ud-Din 'Attar who described her as “on fire with love and longing” and “an unquestioned authority to her contemporaries.”

The story goes that she was sold into slavery to a hard master. Instead of sleeping, she prayed, often also fasting. Once when she was praying her master saw her enveloped in a divine light. So he set her free. Rabi’a then became a desert ascetic.

Rabi’a never studied under any human teacher or spiritual master, instead going straight to God. However, she became a great teacher, herself. She had many disciples, and there are numerous stories of her conversations with contemporary Islamic sages, often showing off her deeper understanding of divine truth.

Rabi’a was a God-lover, spending hours in direct communion with her Beloved. Of formal worship - even in the House of God in Mecca - she said, “It is the Lord of the house Whom I need; what have I to do with the house?”

One of the first Sufis to teach that love alone is the guide for the mystic path, Rabi’a also taught that strong emotions like fear and hope are veils that hide God from our sight. In this quest, logic and reason are powerless as only the eye of the heart can apprehend God’s mysteries.

As an ascetic, she usually prayed all night, sleeping a bit just before dawn. She also lived in celibacy and poverty - owning only a reed mat, screen, pottery jug, and a bed of felt that doubled as prayer rug. When a wealthy merchant tried to give her some gold, she wouldn’t take it, saying God “does not refuse to sustain one who speaks unworthily of Him, how then should He refuse to sustain one whose soul is overflowing with love for Him?”

Some of Rabi’a ‘s poems:

Prayer should bring us to an altar where no walls or names exist.
Is there not a region of love where the sovereignty is illumined nothing,
where ecstasy gets poured into itself and becomes lost,
where the wing is fully alive but has no mind or body?

In my soul there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church
that dissolve, that dissolve in God.

(Daniel Ladinsky, tr.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ironic, but one of the most intimate acts of our body is death.
So beautiful appeared my death – knowing who then I would kiss,
I died a thousand times before I died.

“Die before you die,” said the Prophet Muhammad.
Have wings that feared ever touched the Sun?
I was born when all I once feared
I could love.

(Daniel Ladinsky, tr.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In love, nothing exists between breast and Breast.
Speech is born out of longing,
True description from the real taste.
The one who tastes, knows;
The one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of Something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist?
And who lives as a sign for your journey?

(Charles Upton, tr.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Everyone prays to You from fear of the Fire;
And if You do not put them in the Fire,
This is their reward.
Or they pray to You for the Garden,
Full of fruits and flowers.
And that is their prize.
But I do not pray to You like this,
For I am not afraid of the Fire,
And I do not ask You for the Garden.
But all I want is the Essence of Your Love,
And to return to be One with You,
And to become Your Face."

For more on Rabi'a al Basri see the Sidi Muhammad Press, MYTH*ING LINKS, Poet Seers

Friday, February 01, 2008

Creeping Hermit Desire

Wow, it was almost two months ago when I last posted.

A few days after that post, I began three weeks of house sitting in a place without Internet access. I could get on at a nearby library, yet somehow just didn’t take advantage, instead falling easily into web-withdrawal. But the house sit ended in early January .

Well, this isn’t the first time I’ve chosen disconnection.

In the monastery, I loved the strictures that limited social interaction and entertainment activity. "Cave time." That’s what the formation mistress called the separation provided by a monastic novitiate. She was referring to the story that Benedict shook off his urban social life by living in a cave.

But our monastic life was hardly isolated. We almost always had guests, and chatted through two meals with them. During work periods, we had unlimited Internet access on private computers. Although many monasteries carefully regulate computer use, our old sisters seemed to have no clue that computers can provide a social life. Still, I policed my own computer activity.

So what provided the overwhelming sense of separation from the standard, worldly, social whirl? Limited phone calls, rare personal visits, staying on the grounds except for group excursions on approved errands – no more than once a week. Somehow these opened up a huge physical and psychic space. I worried about stopping close communication with friends and family. But it was the effect on the others that was worrisome. For me, the one on the journey, the excitement of taking off swamped any feelings of loss - for a good long while, at least.

And I miss that emptiness. I still, sorely miss it.

I have friends who have taken hermit vows while staying in the world - with a job, an apartment, and all the rest. They create their own cave effect. But I don’t have a hermit’s call. It’s in the rubbing of close relationships that my spirit shines.

So maybe that’s why I’ve returned to a bad, old habit: going in waves of regular communication and then withdrawal. Every so often, life provides a trigger and I light out for the psychic hills…

But shoot, I used to disappear into the literal hills. Hmmmm... that sounds pretty enticing right about now...