Sunday, August 11, 2019

Jesus the Spiritual Alchemist

I’ve just returned from six weeks of pilgrimage in Ireland. A mystical journey across a magical landscape filled with a lyrical language interpreted by metaphorical poetry. We communed with old friends and were introduced to new ones—both the living and the dead. As in the past, I was invited to view my spiritual travels through the alchemical worldview of W.B. Yeats. In a moment of synchronicity, we were privileged to see a recently discovered 8mm film of Yeats burial, presided over the local Anglican bishop. For some, this would have been an odd paradox given Yeats pan-Celtic yearnings. But for me, it beckoned me to lean in deeper to the intersection of alchemy and Anglicanism as seen through the lens of not only Yeats, but the likes of priests John Dee, John Donne, and George Herbert. Out of this came my musing about Jesus as a Spiritual Alchemist. While I imagine there’s a lot more to come from Active Imagination, I thought I’d start with something familiar like the prayer Jesus taught his followers.

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
But rescue us from the evil one. (Matthew 6)

Looking through the glass of a spiritual alchemist, here’s one interpretation of this prayer:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This prayer follows the first alchemist’ teaching, “as above, as below;” as it is in heaven, so it is on earth. The alchemist used Jesus as the model for how they would conduct their spiritual work—they called upon God to guide and assist them in the perfecting of their soul. For the alchemist, this was a four-step cycle, which was continually repeated throughout life. That four-step process can be found in the next line of the prayer; a metaphor from daily life that Jesus often used.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Our bread, our sustenance, comes from the four elements: the “earth” where the seed is enwombed, the “air” from which the warm sun shines and where the heavenly clouds gathers, from which the rain “water” falls, and the “fire” of lightening from which the elements of the wheat and the water are united to make the bread. Alchemy is a mirror of the natural processes of life; nothing more, nothing less, and always as obscure.

The first step, Nigredo (symbolized by the Raven), the phase of chaos and darkness; the moment when our hopes and dreams are placed in the womb; always with the risk of not knowing the outcome. The second step, is Albedo (the Swan), the light shines on the seed and germination begins; maybe the heat will be just right, or too little, or too much The third step, is Citrinitas (the Peacock), the seed cracks through the soil and new life emerges; but maybe the seedling will burn up, or wither, or be eaten, or hopefully survive. And finally, Rubedo (the Phoenix), the wheat is harvested in use to make bread and feed the hungry. Think of Jesus’ teaching about the seed cast about the farmer, or the parable of the tares, or his words that the wheat must die and how they apply to our daily lives. The alchemist used all these same metaphors to describe their soul work; some probably before Jesus.

The purpose of the alchemist’s work is found in the next line of Jesus’ prayer. “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Alchemy is done for the sake of healing, first of our Self, and then others. To do so, alchemists must see the Christ in themselves, as well as everyone else, and everything. God is Present in all creation. God is Present in each of the four elements, as well as the one who harvests the wheat, bakes the bread, eats the bread, shares the bread, and receives the bread. The cycle is incomplete without each step and the alchemist’s work is never finished until each step has gone through its full course. Forgive us, because you have seen Your Self in us, and we have seen you in others—from forgiveness all healing can be manifest.

The final line of Jesus’ prayer can be tricky to interpret. “And do not bring us to the time of trial. But rescue us from the evil one.” Jesus said that if you sweep and clean your house of one demon, seven more will return. (Luke 11) In other words, instead of cleaning our house of our one demon, we need to make friends with it. In Carl Jung’s alchemical terms, our demon is our shadow and we need to embrace it. Our shadow can be frightening, but it also can be the one who brings healing. Jesus said that you will know him (the Christ) when he would be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent. (John 3:14) Paradoxically, the one who poisons is also the one who heals. Hence, the medical symbol of the caduceus. The time of trial is to deny that we contain both light and shadow. Our work, then, is not to rid ourselves of our shadow, but instead to work with our shadow as a form of healing our Self (two sides of the serpent). The alchemist strove to embrace the shadow by living a non-dualistic life; they worked to unite the opposites of light and shadow (both sides of the serpent), both internally and externally. They would make friends with their shadow by inviting it to sit in their circle of counsel. They would say to their shadow on daily basis, “today you will be with me in paradise.” The alchemist work was to comfort the shadow, quiet it down, and with God’s help, the shadow would become the alchemist’s ally and no longer an enemy (both sides of the serpent).

Not unlike the alchemist, Jesus’ teachings were hidden in secret metaphors; even the prayers he taught his followers. And the alchemist’s, not unlike Jesus disciples, spent their lives trying to unpack those mysteries. Guess that means I have plenty of grist for the alchemical bread I’m baking.




Monday, August 05, 2019

Science and the Mystics

The Feedback Loop of the Mystic by John Brighton
A Book review for SpeakEasy

“The Feedback Loop of the Mystic” is John Brighton’s valiant attempt to bring a contemporary neuroscience interpretation to George Gurjdieff’s esoteric philosophy. Brighton’s effort stems from his desire to give scientific language for his own paranormal experiences. He is obviously brilliant and erudite. This book is extra-ordinarily well researched, which it would need be for Brighton to achieve his courageous goal of a near impossible project.

Brighton is candid about his personal paranormal experiences as he explains in the memoir-like opening chapters. He is also upfront about his years of being a student in the Fourth Way—a system of self-development envisioned by Gurjdieff and his earliest students. Brighton’s goals for writing this book seem three-fold: 1) to bring neuroscience to Gurdjieff’s holographic worldview of the enneagram (to read this book you need to dismiss all you know about the enneagram as a personality typing tool); 2) provide a path to higher consciousness; and 3) create a modality for healing through the mind’s energy waves. My attempt at streamlining Brighton’s work is itself, meager.

“The Feedback Loop” could serve as an Encyclopedia on neuroscience and esoteric psychology. Brighton often reads like the labyrinth-like tales of Gurdjieff himself. Something which almost every student of Gurdjieff seems to fall prey, including his primary disciple Peter Ouspensky, as well the more contemporary Cynthia Bourgeault in “The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three.”

The three points I have taken away from reading Brighton’s book, are:

1) G.I. Gurdjieff “lost science” was pure anamnesis—remembering what he could not have known. Such gives brilliance to Gurdjieff’s work.
2) The convergence of mystical traditions can bring true healing energy to this broken world.
3) Our brain intertwined with the Cosmic Presence is powerful beyond imagination.

Fair warning, Brighton assumes you have some knowledge of Gurdjieff. If you’re interested, I would recommend A.G.E Blake’s “The Intelligent Enneagram.” Brighton also assumes you can remember an exceptionally large number of acronyms, without a complete index. His self-published book also evidenced a lack of professional editing. And a personal pet peeve of mine is his not using source quotes, especially Carl Jung, and an overuse of Wikipedia. Those two concerns raise a personal suspicion about some of the other sources he references.

Brighton deserves tremendous credit for writing this book and I’m glad I read it, though I would be cautious about to whom I might recommend it.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Remembering Michael O’Grady

Monsignor Michael O’Grady, beloved priest, spiritual guide, friend and mentor passed away last week. He died peacefully in his sleep in his “little house,” in Kildysart, Ireland. This was the exact place he told so many of us where he would choose to die; and he did, in the same bed as his mother passed years ago.

I met Fr Mike in 1996, when our mutual friend Marlene introduced us. My soul was in desperate need of weeding and Marlene knew the perfect person to guide the gardening. The first time we met, I wept, he listened quietly. After thirty minutes of silence he took down a copy of the 103 Psalm. He prayed it and then suggested I pray it everyday. I saw him once a week for a season, and then nearly once a month ever since.

That same year, Fr Mike would bless Cathy and my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Then he blessed our family’s first trip to Ireland in 1998. He gave me a few “Punts” to get us started. I still have them. Those coins carry Ireland’s Harp and well represent Mike’s blessed lyrical voice and soul.

Mike personally introduced me to John O’Donohue when the poet was doing a poetry reading in Phoenix just after the American publication of his book “Anam Cara.” Then years later, Mike, Cathy, and I would visit O’Donohue’s grave in the Canamara. We all remembered our favorite verses, Mike’s from memory.

While in Ireland, Mike would make dinner for us in his home and then the next morning celebrate the Mass at his kitchen table. He introduced us to what he said were the “real Ireland, the people.” They generously shared their stories and their Jameson, we drank deep from both. This morning, I see the faces of those people, his friends, his mentors, those he cared for—he is now with them in what the Irish call the thin place. Those spaces and places where the souls of dead and the living mingle. These places and spaces are everywhere if we are still enough to imagine them.

For twenty-three years, Fr Mike listened to my soul pour out my life before him; raw and unfiltered. He never judged, rarely offered advice, usually told me a story, and always, always, listened deeply. He walked me through the transition from baseball coach to college president. He held my grief and anger during the dark days that followed my exit from that university. He encouraged me through the process of becoming an Episcopal priest. We cried together when our mothers died. And we laughed together with joy when the holy grand boys came into this world.

I saw him just a bit before coming to Ireland, we both had a few tears in our eyes. We said goodbye, hugged and he said the same thing to me he always said in departing. “As Anne would be saying, say your prayers, and do your little bit. And be good to Gil.”

Two nights after Mike slipped away, he came to me in a dream. He placed his left hand on my head, blessed me, and disappeared. Now we walk together in a new way. I would imagine he has appeared to many of you.

For all of those countless people that can tell a similar story about their relationship with Fr Mike, and there are countless numbers of you; I would be imagining that we all will remember his gentle stories, his wisdom, his laughter, and his love. Mostly his love. Please remember, “Wherever you go, there you’ll be,” and Mike will still be with you.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Gaelic Camino

Morning, Day Four: Law of Three to make Seven.
Sun blistered wind,
Quarter way to summit War’s Hill;
Muscles burning, stumbling over the stones I placed on the trail;
Shoulders bending under my own burdens packed;
Chest gasping for cooler air than my own stale exhaust;
Eyes begging for level ground
I would not let be found.

Unaware, I fail to recognize demons as allies,
Mistaking them for ghosts of my ancient failures—
Pressing backward, running from my self.

Who is that hiding behind Crone’s Tree,
The shadow I?
Certainty feigned,
Defense sung sharp,
Pride denied.

Who is hiding under Quartz Stone,
My well formed gods?
Irascible commitment,
Transactional relationships,
Veiled love.

Who is that hiding between Raven’s Wings,
Trembling me, aching to flee?
Avoiding history’s trauma,
Denying pain,
Escaping Reality.

Though Demons despised,
Their haunting familiarity lingers as mystic clouds
Whispering wind wisdom through the Rowans, saying:
“Companionship we shadow demons offer.”
Their voices fetching me to risk
What the I of me
Fears to lose:
A crammed rucksack of masks...

Much lighter now,
Hand in hand,
My demons and I,
Lean into what we lovers are becoming—
What always was already;
The True Self of Us being one intimate soul.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Grey Blue Ocean Melted Into the Horizon

The sculpted green coastline of western Ireland acts as a chalice rim for the grey blue ocean that has melted into the horizon of soft clouds. A gentle sea cooled breeze calmly refreshes the morning grasses. Two mares, one roan, the other speckled grey, nurse their colts as the seagulls awaken to fish for breakfast. The village is quiet, the work has not yet begun for those who will labor this day. And I am at peace with myself and in love with the one whom I share the bed in which she sleeps. If life where to end in this moment, with this vision of Mother Earth in my soul, I could know that, indeed, all is well and I will rest at ease for all eternity.

Strandhill is just a few minutes up the coast from Sligo, home of all things WB Yeats. This sacred ground has been the home to the those who most likely migrated from France more than 6,000 years ago. The remains of those ancient peoples still rest in mounds of earth and stone tombs giving testament to their astronomical genius. They built their monuments and stone circles over 3400 years before the Christians adjusted their calendar to match the mystical magistery of those who knew the divine intimately in all of creation. Here, atop the flat topped mountain Knockarea, Queen Maeve is buried standing in her armor, still protecting and providing spiritual guidance for all who walk in her realm.

To ensure such spiritual energy has eternal grace across all of Ireland, the Queen’s tomb, built 500 years before the more well known burial tomb of Newgrange, lies on the same meridian as the tombs of Howth and Tara (all a part of the Newgrange Triangle). These ancient tombs were built within concentric circles connected in triangles across the isle. Their builders understood the power of astronomy, mathematics and philosophy thousands of years before Pythagoras and Herm├Ęs Trismegistus penned their wisdom. Reality is knowledge and has always been magus for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

Here, in this isolated place, in this tiny village on the northwestern coast of Ireland, modern man has learned to walk lightly on the earth. The Irish do not feel ownership of this land, but instead, the responsibility of the stewardship of the gift they have inherited. These people are like the young colts lying in the pasture below; resting peacefully, mother nearby. The giver of life who needs the verdant countryside in order to nourish her baby. These two colts are the microcosm of the microcosm that cares for them—all a significant part of the Great One. No matter how small, the weak colts need the Mother One as much as the One needs them to continue to bring life to the field through their unbridled love.

The ravens overhead are reminding me that pilgrimage is in the present moment, for there is none other. The past’s currency is in the anamnesis, memory that transmutes. For I am changed by the present, knowing that such existence is all there is, all there will be. I too, as a weak colt, will gather up my strength and begin another walk of the Wicklow with fellow pilgrims. Living fully in the present, breathing in the mystery, the magic, and the knowledge that the Great One will share with us along the Way—I will live as if I have been buried alongside Queen Maeve; committed to the spiritual guidance of those who walk in the energy of the now.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

No Need to Worship Jesus

I just finished reading Richard Rohr’s latest book, “The Universal Christ,” as well listening to his accompanying series of twelve podcasts. My take away was the same I had with his previous book, “Immortal Diamond.” In both books, Rohr wrote, “Jesus said follow me. He never said worship me.” In case the reader missed the line, Rohr punctuated it more than once in his podcast.

Rohr’s point is clear—it is much easier to worship Jesus than practice his teachings. One can praise Jesus while only giving a pious head nod to his difficult teachings. For evidence, Rohr simply points to the history of Christianity’s failures of practicing what Jesus taught. And his critique of the current state of Christianity is scathing. Those who are screaming the loudest about Christian dogma seem to be the ones building the highest walls preventing other people from having access to the One Holy Living God.

Let’s just take the simplest of Jesus’ admonitions and ask ourselves how well Christianity is practicing what he taught. Be your own judge. No need for me to overstate the obvious.

• Love God.
• Love your neighbor as yourself.
• Love your enemy.
• Feed the hungry.
• Give water to the thirsty.
• Give clothes to the naked.
• Visit the sick.
• Visit those in prison.
• Embrace the stranger in your land.

Seems to me that Christianity got off the path of Jesus’ Way when it changed its archetypal symbol from the “fish” to the “cross.” Jesus’ teachings are primarily about loving and feeding the starving body and soul, not crucifying them. Jesus’ only mention of worship is directed toward YHWH, the One who is the Lover and Provider for body and soul.

Rohr repeatedly tells us that Jesus’ purpose was not to change God’s mind about humanity, but however, to change humanity’s mind about God. In other words, Jesus was not sent to the earth by God to die on the cross for our individual sins. Jesus, instead, is one who realized the “Christ within.” Through his enlightenment and example, Jesus teaches his followers the way to God, the One who is the Reality of Love.

To change the modern Christian’s understanding of God, Rohr takes on the primal theory of salvation; that Jesus died for our sins so that we might be saved (the theory of blood atonement). Using Jesus’ words, Rohr provides another theory, one that feels more like the One Jesus called Love. Jesus said God is Love and God’s unconditional Love requires no reciprocal transaction on God’s part or ours. Rohr writes, “We are all saved in spite of our mistakes and in spite of ourselves. We are all caught up in the cosmic sweep of Divine grace and mercy.”

While Rohr wouldn’t go as far in print to say as much, I would point to Marcus Borg and his writings about Jesus and his primary purpose. Borg writes that Jesus’ mission was to reveal God’s true nature as Love not retribution. And that Jesus practiced what he taught by being a healer, a miracle worker, a mystic, and a revolutionary; more than enough, but no more. Jesus called himself the “son of man,” and us co-equals as the children of God. All of humanity and all of creation, are abiding in God’s unconditional Love as children of the One. As Jesus was a Christ, so we too are called to be a Christ; and we do so by being a people who practice the teachings of Jesus.

The secret is this: the true practice of following Jesus’ teaching happens outside the corporate Church.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Psychedelic Christianity

I write book reviews for The Speakeasy. The only compensation one gets is to keep copies of the books. My selections for review are based on the same questions I use to purchase books: do I know the author; is the title intriguing; am I interested in the topic; and are the first five pages compelling?

Not having previously read anything by Jack Call, who is the author of "Psychedelic Christianity: On the Ultimate Goal of Living," I had to rely on the later three reference points to make my decision. I love the title and the possibility the topic presents. Admittedly, his first five pages were a bit pedantic. Now having read the complete essay (the book is only 69 pages in length), it’s unclear that the content lived up to the expectation created by the title. Given that lack of satisfaction, the brief time it took to read the book was worth the questions it posed.

For all the potential of the book’s title, Jack Call may have simply stuck the word psychedelic and Christian together without merging the ideas. “My two guiding stars are psychedelic experience and Christianity. Neither one shines brighter than the other…” He says that “A psychedelic Christian is just a Christian who acknowledges that psychedelic experience is a way of learning how to be in the right relationship with God,” a concept of which his explanation is too vague. “Having a right relationship with God” is often a trite phrase. To expect the reader to assume they know what the writer intends is a costly mistake. Nothing should be left to my imagination; I can fill in the blanks in ways the author may not have intended. In the case of this book, Call fails at sharing with us how his two guiding stars would inform each other, and thus, the reader.

He describes his psychedelic experiences as “a way that can’t be put into words.” That may be good enough for him, but not for us. How are we to imagine our own spirituality being shaped by psychedelics if he can’t lead us through his experience? He’s almost teasing us, saying that his psychedelic event was so profound that he came to understand “the ultimate goal,” which becomes the central purpose of his Christianity. The whole point of writing a book is to share your experience with the reader.

He is, though, very willing to present his perspective of a Christian philosophy. His “ultimate goal” is “when God will be all in all, and all things will be restored to an original state of glory.” He tells us this will be achieved when “everyone freely chooses to do God’s will.” Something he admits will never happen, because his philosophy underscores free will; God’s and the individual person’s. “God is in control of the things he chooses to control, I am in control of the things he chooses to allow me to me to control, and I choose just as he would choose if he were in control, and likewise for everyone else.” Call wants to use traditional Christian theological language, but his premise and his terms lead to some confusing conclusions; like the one I just quoted. Sometimes unique concepts need new terms in order to give us clear pictures. Even without the psychedelic component, however, his path, at times, winds through a haze filled maze—often leaving his epistemology incongruent.

Jack Call defines himself as a Protestant Christian. He tells us, because of that, he is led to think that “each of us is entitled to say what he or she thinks is the true message of Christianity.” He believes Jesus obtained universal salvation for everyone by achieving the ultimate goal. “That is why I believe that if anyone (Jesus) has really attained the ultimate goal, then everyone has.” But that is not enough. Then he tells us that once the ultimate goal is achieved, a new goal will be revealed. This is because “I want to be able to change without the change ever being that I no longer exist. I want the change to be enjoyable…morally and emotionally satisfying, and sensually and intellectually beautiful.” The author, therefore, does not want to personally have to experience any painful process to achieve transformation. Though he never says so, I assume this is because Jesus already went through the human process.

I also assume that because Jesus went through the human course, we are excused from such? The author writes, “I think it is wrong to speak in terms of ‘transcending the ego.’” That, he says, would make us appear to be superior beings. I don’t agree. That would make us mature human beings. I think he missed the point of the process of integrated maturation. Something many believe Jesus was pointing the way toward, not excusing us from. Richard Rohr, for one, in his latest book, The Universal Christ, makes this point about the Christ very clear.

Jack Call says he wants to be in relationship with God, but doesn’t see God present in humanity, or nature; meaning his spiritual relationship is exclusively with God. Which evidently, is the premise that leads him to declare he is a dualist; he and God are not one and never will be.

He says he follows the historic teaching of Jesus regarding morality and ethics, however, he never connects Jesus with the Christ. Were he to explore the possibilities of the Cosmic Christ, I would imagine he might have come to another conclusion. Oddly enough, Call only references one theologian—Rudolf Bultmann and his 1958 book, Jesus Christ and Mythology; a book I would recommend. Yet still, Call might have been well served to explore an endless list of theologians, Christian and otherwise, who might support his point of views, or maybe better yet, enlighten them.

I had high (pun intended) hopes for this book. But, frankly, I was disappointed. The potential for psychedelic Christianity, an altered state of consciousness Christianity, has long existed in its mystic tradition. The use of altered states of consciousness, drug induced and otherwise, have also long been a component of the perennial mystic tradition. Call never addressed any of these rich mystical traditions other than to dismiss them for their goal of unity, or in his words, the annihilation of the individual. Call wisely points out that psychedelics are not for everyone. I would agree. But he offers no other alternatives for an altered state of consciousness, which he promotes, sort of.

I have friends who have entered alter states of consciousness through the use of psychedelics and they have been able to recreate the scenes with some graphic detail. Their drug induced experiences, in many ways, mirror the experiences of my friends who have entered deep spiritual experiences, specifically through deep prayer, meditation, chanting, yoga, speaking in tongues, the Kabbalahic trance, active imagination dialogue with their Ally, extended pilgrimages, and long fasts. The esoteric experiences of my friends have richly informed their spirituality. I think maybe another book could be written on the topic, one that would include the ancient traditions of the mystery, the knowledge, and the magic of “An Awakened Pilgrimage.”