Thursday, February 07, 2019

What would happen if Frida Kahlo was Mary Magdalene

What would happen if literary apocalypticism collided with surrealist art? The answer would be, “The Book of Revelation” translated by Michael Straus and illustrated by Jennifer May Reiland. These two might be the twenty-first century’s equivalent of William Blake and Frida Kahlo.

While I have read the Book of Revelation, also known at the Revelation to John, several times, admittedly, I have never read it in one reading. Now I have, thanks to this magnificent piece of art produced by Straus and Reiland.

These two met at an open studios event in New York, where Reiland’s “Self Portrait of Mary Magdalene Having a Vision of the Apocalypse” was on display. Straus was inspired and approached her about collaborating on a new translation of the Revelation. She was very enthusiastic, and the project took off.

Straus has successfully maintained the mystical poetic rhythm of the original language, while bringing the first writer’s vision into the modern era. We hear the phrases we expect from the original author, but then are surprised by words and phrases in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, and Spanish. The use of non-English words is included at the perfect moment, which add to the mysticism of the text. Straus gives depth to the prose with the accompaniment of musical stanzas, complete with Hallelujahs and Amens.

Reiland transports the first-century Apocalypse of the Four Horsemen, wild beasts, the whore of Babylon, and the Antichrist right into New York City’s collapse of the Twin Towers, Isis beheadings, and graphic eroticism. Her epic drawings are unexpectedly detailed, granting the full sweep of history’s timelessness—giving the beholder a gut punching view of modernity’s apocalypse. Reiland’s art does well to deliver the unconscious visions and dreams of the Revelation to John.

This book is beautiful little secret well worth the time and a few dollars to uncover. It definitely has enriched my reading and more importantly, my experience, of the Revelation. Fair warning to the reader, beware if you’re offend by graphic erotic art.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Tatto Trance

The rhythmic sound of an electric toothbrush is followed by the pound of a needle. Then comes the wipe of a cooling towel and a soothing bit of Vaseline. Sound, pound, wipe, lubricant. Sound, pound, wipe, lubricant. 1,2,3,4—1,2,3,4—1,2,3,4—1,2….The sky is misty grey and the hills are twenty-one shades of lush green. The uphill trail is soggy from days of rain; scattered with white quartz from pea to egg size and various stages of sheep dung. I’m alone—but I’m not. I can hear my boots, but not hers. A gentle hand brushes down my sleeve. I put my hand back, but she didn’t take it.

“Can you answer me a question?”

“What’d you say?” Cat said.
“Sorry,” I said.
“You okay?”
“Ahh. yea. I’m fine. Just kinda somewhere else.”
“You need a break?”
“Naw. I’m good.”
“Okay. Let me know when you need me to stop for a bit.”

The rhythm of Cat’s tattooing resumed.

As I passed the Medicare threshold, my wife paid for adding some new body art to my collection. I wasted no time making an appointment. When I had opened the door to the small tattoo shop in old town Scottsdale, the distinct smell of a desert antiseptic—sage brush meets rain—took me back to the hours I had already spent there. Cat, the tattoo artist, turned to look at me. Her name does her justice. She stood frozen in place, squinting, as the outside halo of sunlight rained into the room. The door closed behind me and I stepped into the Light of the New Moon. Cat’s surreal mystical art that hangs on the walls, drummed psychic energy into the space. She seemed to be one with her art and studio and I feel privileged to be one of her many living canvasses. She’s the artist who has given design to my vision and ink to every tattoo on my body.

“Oh. Good to see you,” she said. “Come around here and take a look at what I have for you.”

She handed me her large IPad. On it was a completed drawing of the draft she had shown me via text a few weeks ago. This image would add to the work we had begun together several years ago. The new tattoo would fill the right side of my back; a female blue winged alchemist floats with priestly arms outstretched in prayer. She is the alchemist, the anima mundi, who is creating her philosopher’s stone of magic. The tattoo would eventually be completed over two sessions and seven hours. The image on the opposite side of my back had taken three sessions totaling eleven hours; a raven with a peacock tail rising from the gatekeeper’s cauldron. The mystical bird is flying above the sun toward the moon. The artwork on my arms and chest augment my mythic pilgrimage and have taken nearly fifteen hours of work. These tattoos, and whatever will follow, are a pictorial explanation of my personal myth; the mystical work of an alchemist.

I started my tattoo skin journal after walking across Ireland. A reoccurring dream, a vision, and a talking raven began the continual dialogue with my ally who lives in the psychoidal world. This is the world of a visionary experience, the luminous state of mind where Carl Jung wrote “The Red Book.” Jung’s two-year calligraphy and mandala journal of creative imagination is the external expression of his interior soul work. The tattoos you see had already been etched on the soul of Life’s Alchemist.

The rhythm of Cat’s artistry and the constant pounding of the needle create a soul opening for me to slide into another level of consciousness. A mental, physical, and psychic state that replicates walking the pilgrim’s trail while fasting. The exhaustion and hunger create a crack in the egg of this world’s reality, creating a labyrinth which leads to where the unseen becomes visible.

“I can feel you behind me. Why won’t you take my hand?”

Not expecting an answer, I tightened the straps on my pack, relieving some of the stress on my aching shoulders. A turn in the trail took me from the open fields and up into an ancient forest of giant mountain ash. The leaves glistened with an Irish mist, while the intertwined limbs eclipsed the sun. The breeze sang like a spectral choir. In some recent past, the heavy rains had so softened the ground that high winds toppled a few of the giant trees, exposing a root base higher than the roof of a house. The bog blackened roots stood as tombstones to another Aeon. The darkness breathed in and exhaled a purple fog, and I was suspended in timelessness.

“You had a question?” she said.

The gentle confident sound stopped my breathing. I thought I had a question, but her voice infused chaos in my already altered state of mind. I focused what little energy remained on the only sound I had heard for hours. The ancients in the forest sighed waiting for at least some feeble response.

I choked out whispered words, afraid I might hear myself speak. “Have you always been with me?”

The purple cloud thickened with nature’s exhale. Silence held the answer I expected to hear. I kept walking. The trail flattened out and I picked up my pace as a way of distraction for my aching soul. The pregnant air was broken by a laughing raven high above. The Pilgrim walked on while the painting on the wall began to question me. And I foolishly answered back.

I must be the Pilgrim’s Fool. Grail’s cocktail of self-disgust and realization. Or maybe not? I don’t know. Would that make the Christ the Magician? Must be. But Jesus could be the Fool. I think I’ve seen that in a deck somewhere before. No, no. Christ is the Magician. Because that would make a transmigration of Brigid Dubh, the Anam Cara, and the Soror Mystica the High Priestess? Of course. Then Mother Mary, Magdalene, and the other Mary would be the Empress. And the Lover, the Beloved, and the Spirit would be the Emperor. The Empress and the Emperor would be the pair of opposites, two sides of the same coin, the Hermaphrodite. The Pilgrim, the Magician, the Priestess, the Empress are woven into the World of the One. The unified world, the Unus Mundus, everywhere but nowhere. We’re living in it, but we are not. The interior has become the exterior, the unseen—the seen.

“What’s happening to me?”

She said, “Opposites in tension create transmutation; a new reality.”

Cat said. “You okay? You need a break?”
“Oh, I think I’m okay.”
“You got another thirty minutes in ya?”
“Yeah. How long have we been at it?”
“Almost four hours,” she said.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Nasty Angels

John Dee and the Empire of Angels: Enochian Magick and the Occult Roots of the Modern World by Jason Louv

Eight in ten Americans believe that angels exist. Fifty-five percent believe they have a guardian angel. The three major Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all include angels as a significant part of their religious system. Those who buy into angels might equate their ideals to the 1996 film, “Michael” that starred John Travolta. He was an affable and naïve angel who smelled like fresh baked cookies. Few angel fans probably want their guardians to be the opposite of Michael, like the angels who appeared in Kevin Smith’s 1999 film “Dogma.” His angels were engaged in an apocalyptic, though humorous, battle. Historically, the angels of our major religions have a tendency to favor the later.

“Every generation gets its own apocalypse.” Jason Louv’s John Dee and the Empire of Angels: Enochian Magick and the Occult Roots of the Modern World portrays a realm of angels who are intent on driving human history toward the great apocalypse found in The Revelation of John. Louv’s ouroboros view of human history demands we take the alchemical “black pilgrimage” in hopes to experience the divine gold; the eternal elixir that resides deep within us all. “The true Revelation is that we have never left the Garden at all…we’ve just head tripped ourselves into thinking we have. Revelation means the lifting of the veil—the veil of our own mind that obscures Eden.” Louv’s Eden is the experience of enlightenment, the liberated mind, seeing God “face-to-face,” a state of consciousness humanity has known from the beginning but been taught otherwise by those same religions that think angels smell like fresh baked cookies.

The controversial, but often forgotten figure of John Dee (1527-1608) is the central character in Louv’s historical drama. Dee most likely paved the wave for the emerging scientific mind to evolve in 16th century England. At one time, his personal library exceeded that of the collected volumes of all the royalty, the monasteries, and the universities in the country. Depending on whose history you read, John Dee was either a spiritually wise sage or a genius madman—or both. Such the reasons that Queen Elizabeth I, kept Dee close to her left hand while pushing him with her right. His political and military acumen could be brilliant at times and disastrously miscalculated at others. Dee’s mystical spirituality and alchemical knowledge were to be equally coveted and feared. So convoluted was Dee’s life that historians have done their best to either downgrade his importance or deny his role in global history. Louv, however, provides a disparate interpretation of Dee’s legacy; that of master communicator with angels and an apocalyptic provocateur.

John Dee and the Empire of Angels is appropriately divided into the three sections, which Louv calls “Books”: The Magus, The Angelic Conversations, and the Antichrist. The title of each book is a foretelling. The Magus is a well written biography of Dee. The second book is an excruciatingly detailed journal of Dee’s encounters with angels. And book three exposes the results of the wizard’s work; a connection to the twenty-first century most readers would never imagine.

In Book One, The Magus, Louv does his best to provide the background necessary to decipher Dee’s (and the medieval Renaissance) theology of biblical Hermeticism. Not a philosophy most twenty-first century American Christians might find themselves comfortable in recognizing as their roots, particularly Evangelical Christians. Dee, educated and trained by the best Catholic minds, was unwillingly drafted into the dangers of Reformation’s murky milieu. Between the Inquisition’s torture rack and witch burnings, the theological storms were brewing perpetual destruction.

In Book Two, The Angelic Conversations, Louv takes us deep into Dee’s mental and spiritual world; the Christian of the twenty-first century should be forewarned—this glimpse is not for the religiously naïve. Through personal journals, Louv provides with us the minutia of details that allows Dee to encounter the realm of angels, their language, and their irascible nature. One should never forget that the God of Genesis created both the “Tree of Life” and the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” and both are on glorious and painful display in this story. Dee’s narrative is the child born of the mystical marriage of the dark and light of both the Old and New Testament.

In Book Three, Antichrist, Louv reveals the antichrist’s identity. Don’t think of one individual as the antichrist. Louv takes us through the modern occult world of Aleister Crowley, Jack Parsons, and L. Ron Hubbard to just name a few of the characters. Louv brings the story to a most timely and pertinent conclusion.

My best recommendation for John Dee and the Empire of Angels: Enochian Magick and the Occult Roots of the Modern World is to read the final chapter before starting through Louv’s labyrinthine work. Unless you have deep interest in John Dee, communicating with angels (Enochian Magic), alchemy, and the esoteric arts you might not make it through the introduction. Without the readers keen curiosity on the topics he presents, Louv provides only obscure hints and eclipsed clues that might not be enough to move the reader through the first forty-two pages. For the uninitiated, reading the final chapter first, “The Last Jerusalem,” will be more than enough motivation to hang on for the magical ride.

Jason Louv’s book is written with the precision of a journalist, the detail research of a historian, and the spiritual experience of well-traveled pilgrim. While I have studied the topics Louv covered I was not disappointed with the time I invested in this book; in fact, I learned a great deal. This is a beautiful book filled with lovely and important art. Inner Traditions did a wonderful publishing this book.

But the best thing about John Dee and the Empire of Angels is that I imagine both ends of the spiritual spectrum might hate it; most Christians will be shocked and confused while New Age magicians will be disgusted that their roots are so intertwined with the Christian story. Have fun.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Reading for Pure Joy

I love to read, and I never go anywhere without a book; making me no different than any other writer. And now that I’ve moved into a more focused chapter of my life, I only read things that matter to me. No more reading because I have to—my grandad used to say, “with age comes freedom,” and now I’m living that out. Remember that while you’re scrolling down through my list. Since I started blogging ten years ago, I’ve annually posted my top books of the year. Oddly enough, the length of the list has not been consistent. This year I’m going with twelve. Don’t think apostles. Think alchemy—three becomes four; the apocalypse, the philosopher’s stone. The books are listed from ten to one. And then I’ve thrown in two extras, just because I wanted to use the number twelve. I’ll start with the apocalypse, that ought to be a fair warning.

Ten—“The Book of Revelation,” translated by Michael Straus and illustrated by Jennifer May Reiland. I’ve read The of Book of Revelation several times, but never in one setting. Now I have. And while The Saint John Bible’s is illuminative, the art didn’t drive me into an apocalyptic fetal position. Straus’s translation is true to the original language yet fresh. And he offers little poetic surprises along the way using Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and German to accentuate the poetry of the vision. He also includes a bit of alleluia musical score, which I found delightful. Reiland brings the apocalypse alive, shockingly with graphic eroticism. Her detailed watercolors are contemporary in content and style. Reiland’s “Self-portrait of Mary Magdalene Having a Vision of the Apocalypse,” is a juxtaposition of the beauty and the beast.

Nine—“The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism” by Robert M. Place.
First, Place is an artist, one who wants to know everything about his subject, which for several years has been the tarot. His latest tarot decks are “The Alchemical Tarot” and “The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mysteries.” His research led him into the areas you would expect, hence the long and cumbersome title of this book. I’ve read several books on the tarot and this one offers the most concise and at the same time, in depth, history of the cards. Place does a reasonable job of providing the reader with enough connection, but not too much background, into the other topics, out of which tarot developed and without you cannot truly understand the craft of tarot. His art is beautiful and imaginative. I’m especially fond of the first deck. He also provides several plates of historical tarot cards and alchemical art. The only thing that would have made this volume better would have been color pictures, of course that would have put the price out of reach.

Eight—"Alchemical Active Imagination” by Marie-Louise von Franz. Von Franz was one of
Carl Jung’s closest and most respected students and colleagues. She has written more about Jung’s concept of Active Imagination than anyone. Jung’s technique, along with dream analysis, was central to his therapeutic method. To have any understanding of Jung’s mystical theories and practices, his oft misunderstood “The Red Book,” and the use mandalas, von Franz’s book is a must.

Seven—“Aurora Consurgens: A Document Attributed to Thomas Aquinas on the Problem of
Opposites in Alchemy,” edited with commentary by Marie-Louise von Franz. If you
didn’t read number eight on the list, go back and read it before trying to tackle this work of art. This isn’t the Thomas Aquinas you read in seminary. This is the great theologian facing death, trying to sort out the most serious questions of life and the end, his personal apocalypse. He needed a therapist and a spiritual guide. Therapy hadn’t been invited so he turned to Sophia, the feminine divine to be his confessor and confidant—his ally with God. Mind bending stuff with soul creating possibilities.

Six—“When Nietzsche Wept,” a novel by psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom. Did philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche have a therapist? What if that therapist was a colleague of Sigmund Freud? What if Nietzsche was the father of talk therapy? Irvin Yalom has been one of the most creative and imaginative therapist and writers of our era. He has used the novel, and in this case, historical fiction, to pose some fascinating questions about the human condition and the practice of therapy. This book is deliciously written and moves quickly across the landscape. If you’re interested in therapy and/or spiritual guidance (spiritual direction), this is an important read in understanding transference, counter-transference, the depths of depression, and suicide. He also wrote “Schopenhauer’s Cure,” a melancholic teaching novel about group therapy.

Five—"The Transmigration of Timothy Archer” a novel by Philip K. Dick. He’s the author of “The Man in the High Castle,” and the film “Blade Runner” was based on his science-fiction work. Dick was a prolific writer authoring 44 novels and 121 short stories, ranging in topics from science fiction, alternative universes, altered states of consciousness, metaphysics, and theology. “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer” was based on Dick’s friendship with the controversial Episcopal Bishop James Pike, who was a precursor to the equally firebrand Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. The novel provides a picture into the confused psyche of someone caught in the political swirl of the church, illusive historical Jesus research, and the drama of human tragedy. The twist is in the title.

Four—“The Intelligent Enneagram” by A.G.E. Blake. This book has nothing to do with the
Enneagram as a personality typing tool and everything to do with the teaching of G.I. Gurdjieff. If you have read Cynthia Bourgeault’s “The Holy Trinity and the Law of the Three,” you’ll recognize Gurdjieff’s name. Bourgeault does her best to use Gurdjieff’s work in relationship with the Trinity without getting her reader bogged down in the intricacies of the metaphysics behind the Enneagram. I have found Blake’s work to be foundational in understanding the philosophical and magical power of the Sacred Circle. Blake fills in the thought gaps Bourgeault left with her reader. If you want to fully grasp the Enneagram at a deeper level, this book is for you.

Three—“Bodies, Politics and Transformations: John Doone’s Metempsychosis,” by Siobhan
Collins. The Irish author and academic takes on the daunting task of salvaging Donne’s most opaque and often misunderstood poem. In fact, his detractors use this lengthy poem to disparage Donne’s canon. Most aficionados on Donne divide his career into two segments—before and after priesthood. The first half of his writing life was filled with Eros. The second with Agape. Collins succeeds in giving Donne an appropriate Janus-esk reality. Or in Jungian terms, she allows him to individuate. Collins work is true the subject; poetic, illusive, and evocative. If you don’t know who John Donne was, might be good to read a biography, such as “John Donne: The Reformed Soul,” by John Stubbs before starting in on Collins.

Two—“Healing the Wounded God,” by Jeffrey Raff. Raff was a student of Marie von Franz; thus, he’s is a Jungian analyst and a practitioner of alchemical imagination. His other works are “Jung and the Alchemical Imagination,” The Wedding of Sophia,” and “The Practice of Ally Work.” I would recommend you start with “Healing the Wounded God,” but these four volumes have shaped my spiritual practice. He has taught me how to contemplate with and pray to the divine and communicate with my souls. He has led me into the discovery of the Anima Mundi, the world soul and my own anima. His book has also been supportive of the idea of the “disabled God,” and my research into disability theology.

One— “Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam” by Stepania Pandolfo. Her other equally evocative book is “Impasse of the Angels.” Pandolfo has changed the way I think about the magical realm of writing and engaging the imagination. “Writing is magic…an otherworldly receptivity.” Her work as an anthropologist of psychology takes her into the dark, imaginal, and artistic world of mental illness, a pain that invades all our lives without respect the race, creed, or culture. We sit at her feet while she teaches us about Sufi poets, art, the metaphysics of Islam, and the tragedy of mind. Pandolfo’s writing is a mystical spiral, which induces an altered state of mind for the reader. These books are a pathway into an alternative universe that demands we somehow keep one foot in whatever we might consider “our reality,” each realm in itself that is as allusive as the other.

I said I would give you two extra books. I also realized I gave you ten other book titles while reviewing my top ten for the year; that makes twenty. As promised, though, here are two addition books, just for fun—which makes the Fool’s journey through the Major Arcana complete.

“The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London,” by Christopher Skaife. Just plain fun and a few tidbits about ravens—like Guinness and scones (yes, the two go together; try it.)

“Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice,” by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew. This book is for writers at every level of their craft. Insightful and filled with practical tips and exercises. She’s also friends with two author friends of mine, Karen Herring and Beth Gaede.

My planned reading for 2019? I have these in my que, sitting on my desk.

“The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick” by Philip K. Dick
“Science and Spiritual Practice: Reconnecting through Direct Experience,” by Rupert Sheldrake
“The Lifetimes When Jesus and Buddha Knew Each Other,” by Gary R. Renard
“How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence,” by Michael Pollan.

Hope you found something here intriguing. Happy reading.

Friday, December 21, 2018

I Wish I Could Win the Irish Lottery

Six times, I’ve put my name in an Irish lottery, hoping to be drawn to stand with a few select others, as the morning sun would rise and shine into the center of the ancient temple tomb at Newgrange. Maybe next year. Of course, it was cloudy this morning in Ireland, like most days, the sun was not seen.

Whenever I’ve gone through a rough patch in my life; someone has invariably told me, “Well, you know, the sun will come up in the morning and everything will be better.” I’ve always hated that trite statement. When I feel down, in the blues, depressed, or when I’ve failed miserably, it doesn’t feel like the sun is going to come up in the morning. It actually feels like the sun will never rise again. I’ve felt like that so often, though, I feel okay with living in the darkness.

There are days when I do want the sun to rise again. On those days, rare as they may be, I feel like I need a bit of light and warmth. Paradoxically, during the Christmas season, at the darkest time of the year, when I feel the bluest, is when our culture tells us we should be celebrate.

The first 400 years of Christianity, Christmas wasn’t celebrated. Easter was the only Christian feast. At some point, Christians came into contact with the Celts. The Celts celebrated the three-day feast of the Winter Solstice. The word “Solstice,” is translated as “the day the sun stood still;” the three days when the naked eye cannot see the shadows lengthen. On these three days, the Celts believed their prayers and celebrations participated with Creation in order to restore the lengthening of the days of the sun.

The first day of the solstice, they gathered around the community’s oak tree, which was typically in the center of their village. They decorated the tree with bright red mushrooms that were indigenous to the season. The oak tree was known as the light bearer. Whenever the great oak was hit by lightning, the people would take the struck limb and use it for the Yule fire log, which brought good luck into the home with the promise of longer days to come.

On day two, the Celts gathered at their sacred sites, like Newgrange, to welcome the rising of the sun at the Winter Solstice. These feasts honored the souls of the departed who would be taken into the heart of the living sun.

On the third day of the feast, the people would box up food to take to widows and orphans, to ensure they had enough to sustain them through the impending winter.

Christians witnessed in the Celts celebration of the Winter Solstice, the same thing they believed about the light of God coming into the world. They adopted some of the Celtic practices and in 336 CE, established the celebration Christmas on the same day as the Winter Solstice, which was December 25. (At that time Christians used the Julian calendar, which had only 362 days and no leap year.)

By the 1500’s the Julian calendar no longer matched the seasons of the years. In 1582, Pope Gregory the XIII established the Gregorian calendar that we use today. With the addition of three days and leap year, the Winter Solstice fell on December 21st or 22nd, leaving Christmas three days after the Solstice. Instead of moving Christmas back to match the Solstice, Christians left it on the 25th, marking the rising of the Son of God on the third day after the longest night—to mirror the Resurrection story.

In the ancient worship services of the Christmas feast, Christians would read four different stories from the bible about the rising of God’s light.

At the setting of the sun on Christmas Eve, they would read a story to remind them that God had always been present to people in the darkest times in their lives. Men like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David who lives were often lived in the dark shadows. And women like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba who suffered under the hand of oppression. Yet in all the dark shadows and all the oppression, the promise was that the light of God would shine once again.

Then at midnight, Christians would read the story of the angel who appeared to the shepherds. This story is not the sanitized version we are familiar with; a story of sweet shepherd boys being frightened by the appearance of an angel. Instead, this story reminds the listener that the shepherds were criminals sent out of the village to do the dangerous work of tending the sheep. After living with sheep, the outcasts would smell disgusting. Everywhere they went, they carried the mark, the smell of being an outsider. Then, at the darkest moment of their lives, the angel appeared to them and said, the Light was now born into the world and they, and all other outcasts, were invited to go see this strange occurrence.

Then, before sunrise, Christians would read the third story, which was about the shepherd’s arrival at the stable where the Light, in the form a baby, had been born. The shepherds, who smelled like sheep, were welcomed into the barn; the stable where everyone, including the baby smelled the same. And the Light provided warmth for them all.

And finally, after sunrise, Christians would read the story that reminded them that the Light has come for everyone—even when they would feel like the sun will never rise again.

The Light, God, was with the ancients in those bleak times. God was with the shepherds, the criminals, the outcasts, the rejected, when all hope was lost. At the worst of times, God would appear as Light, as an angel, as a lamb, as baby, as the rising sun.

No matter how dark our life might be, whether the sun is standing still, or the sun is hidden behind dark clouds, we can be reminded, as with our ancestors, the Light, in some form, will rise again, even if I didn’t win the Irish lottery.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Altered State of Mind: Parables of an Alchemist Part 2

Altered State of Mind: Parables of an Alchemist – Part 2

Something happened. Seems it would be easy to describe something so simple. But it’s more complicated than the straight-forward sentence, “I retired.” I did retire from active work in the Episcopal Church. I made the choice, happily. I’ve been working since I was seventeen. I’ve worked for the Houston Astros, the Milwaukee Brewers, Coolidge Unified School District, Grand Canyon University, and The Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. I’ve had many masters and now it’s time to be my own. I can choose what to do and when to do it. I’ve become a full-time writer without the necessity of a day job. That feels really good.

But change, even desired good change, comes with transition—the movement from one place, or stage, or chapter to the next. Transition is the process of change. Sometimes we want things to change, like our weight, or our diet, or our work situation, or where we live, or who we live with, but we don’t do anything about it—we are unwilling to go through the transition, the process. Of course, there is change that we can’t control, getting older is the best example. But sometimes other people make decisions that force us to change, layoffs, unwanted divorce, our health, a family death. Change happens. Transition is the process we go through to get to the other side of change.

Prior to retiring, I was an interim pastor. The church’s previous pastor had suddenly, without warning, been removed from the position. It was a shock to almost everyone, including me. Sunday the priest was leading worship. Monday the priest didn’t have a job. Chaos ensued. The congregation was stunned, confused, bewildered, frustrated, angry, numb. And I was thrust into the position of being the congregation’s interim pastor. A dark cloud hung over all of us. In alchemy such an experience is known as “nigredo.” This stage of alchemy is painful because the heat has been turned up and everything is whirling around. The soup of our soul had begun cooking.

For a year, the congregation went through the process of asking hard questions, airing grievances, expressing anger, and grieving, lots of grieving. The transition through this stage was only possible because people were listened to and no one tried to fix their problems, because change had already happened and going back to the way things were, was, as is always the case, not possible. Collectively, though not necessarily individually, they begun to transition to the next stage.

The next stage began when they decided to move forward and seek a new pastor. They talked about their dreams for the future, their hopes for a new leader, and how they would live life together in a new paradigm. In alchemical terms, this is known as “albedo.” It’s when the chick begins pecking out of the egg because it knows it can no longer live in the darkness. The chick must break through, into the light. This stage can be very frightening, panic can set it, a collective claustrophobia can envelope us. Will we ever see the light again? But then a sliver of brightness elbows its way into our darkness and fresh air rushes in; we feel reborn. Once out of the egg, the hard work of standing on our own two feet begins. We wobble around, but finally we get our legs under us, and then we find our stride. We feel like we’re heading into a new land.

And that’s when things get weird. Things aren’t all wonderful under the sun’s brightness. We get to the first obstacle, a cliff. We feel like we’re ready to fly to the other side. We’re a raven who should be able to fly high in the air. We see ourselves as a peacock with a beautiful plume. We tell ourselves that we are ready. But then we realize we are raven with a peacock tail, we look cool, but can’t fly over the crevasse open before us. In alchemy this is the stage of “rubedo.” We have to stay the course, keep working in order to make the final transition.

With the hard work of deep listening to the divine, our soul, and others, reflecting on what has happened, re-imagining what can happen, and leaning into what the transition means—positive change happens—the gold we desire is produced. The Phoenix rises from the ashes and resurrection becomes a reality. We do this work, at first for our self, but then as we go through the transition, we discover that all this work has been for the sake of others as well. The gold heals us and those around us.

While everyone in the congregation was suffering through this transition process, so was I. Making my way through each stage, chaos, breaking out of the egg, and weirdness. But now, as the congregation has hired a new pastor, they are ready to step into that stage of gold. And while they do that, I step off into retirement.

And what does that mean for me? It means I have to endure another round of alchemy. More change. Transition. And I must go through each stage again, nigredo, albedo, rubedo, hoping for gold. This first week feels like what Matthew Fox calls ReFirement. I’ve re-entered the cauldron’s heat. A lot of painful transitions of my past have resurfaced for me to process through once again. I’m having very strange dreams that I have to work with. One minute I’m elated with relief and the next depressed for no reason. I feel like I simultaneously have a huge hangover and the best afterglow possible.

I told the congregation they would repeatedly go through this process. But now they are conscious of it and have new tools to re-imagine themselves and not repeat the errors of their history. Same goes for me. More experience with the process and better tools to manage the waves of uncertainty. And the one thing I can count on is that more change is coming.

As a part of this transition, my son, Dr Neil Stafford, PsyD, and I are starting a new podcast, “A Therapist and an Alchemist.” Our first episode explores the topic of change and transition in much more depth. Our first conversation will appear very soon. Please join us in the conversation.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Baseball Imitates Life

Dedicated to Jessie Lee Moss, May 3, 1939 – November 18, 2018

“Bull Durham” has remained an iconic film, not because men love baseball, but because women understand that the game imitates life. I grew up in a family, where at Thanksgiving, men watched football and the women talked about Spring Training. Men are men, their attention will move to the next shiny object of whatever sport is before them. Women in our family, however, knew deep in the essence of their being, that the seasons of baseball mirrored the cycles of life.

My family roots lie in Oklahoma, the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and baseball. Men played Saturday afternoon games on town teams. Family and friends gathered for the serious matter of bragging rights. Bitter rivalries often carried over into the week’s work place. The women knew the intricacies of the sport and the children mimicked their parents. Later in life, my mother would often recount having watched her father, her husband, her son, and her grandson all play baseball. Almost every woman in our family has a similar baseball pedigree.

Some of my fondest memories were of visiting my great-grandmother. As a young boy who carried two gloves and ball everywhere, she was always willing to play catch with me. As a teenager, she gave me a metal pin commemorating Jackie Robinson’s Rookie-of-the-Year season. Obviously, I still have it, along with my thousands of baseball cards.

My grandfather’s oft repeated tale of his relationship with Gene Autry, singer, movie legend, and eventual owner of the then California Angels, has mythic significance in our family. Before Autry left Oklahoma, their families lived in the Tulsa region. During the World Series, Autry would translate the play-by-play telegraph messages and post them on a giant manually operated scoreboard at the local train station. Men and women would hang around, talk politics and smoke, while getting the inning by inning updates. Family legend has it that Autry was sweet on my great-aunt. She would always deny the story with a twinkle in her eye. The plot of “Bull Durham” came naturally by its narrative that had been ground in a myth repeated for generations.

Our family’s loyalties divided between the St Louis Cardinals, the Dodgers, and the New York Yankees. Much of that was fueled by geography and regular World Series exposure. The Cardinals were close by and the Yankees and Dodgers were national rivals. When the early games appeared on TV, Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese simply fanned the flames. Those loyalties have softened over time with family migration, syndicated television, and additional MLB teams. The passion for the game, however, has not diminished nor the women’s knowledge of the game and its symbolic meaning.

Jessie Lee Moss, my mother’s cousin, passed away this week. We visited her last summer at her home in rural Oklahoma, not far from where she had spent her entire life. She was a lifetime Cardinals fan. A real fan. A true fan. She watched all 162 games and understood the nuance of every subtle move. When we showed up at her home, she paused the game to record it. I told her we would very be glad to watch the game with her, but she told us it was better if she watched it alone. It was her polite way of telling us she didn’t want to be distracted by our familial chit-chat while she was watching the Cardinals battle for a playoff spot. We understood and kept our visit to a reasonable time.

Today, I can hear my mother and Jessie laughing together. Most of the women of their generation had a similar laugh—hearty and rooted in simple pleasures born of painful sacrifice. Many of them suffered a natural melancholy; loss, grief, and death had left its wounds on their souls. They were woman who worked hard, played hard, and loved with passion. They spoke truth to power, suffered no man’s foolishness, and loved their family with every ounce of life’s blood. When these women watched baseball, their lives were reflected in the mundane pace of the game that requires attention to every detail. And even with the most careful planning, to win half the games is earned success. The only failure is not to give your all. Strikes outs happen every day; everyone makes errors; some days you just can’t throw a strike to save your life. But then, there are those moments, though rare, when you hit a game winning home run, or you strike out the side in the bottom of the ninth, those times when your team embraces you in love, respect, and appreciation. You live for those days. It is the good times that we remember, but it is those bad times that make us what we are. That is the truth of baseball.

In a “League of Their Own,” a movie about women’s professional baseball during World War II, the manager tells the one his players, “There’s no crying in baseball.” That line gets repeated too often, for its not true. There is a lot of crying in baseball. But it’s usually hidden in the souls of the brokenhearted. Jessie Lee, we are grieving our loss today. And we will cry, not only in brokenhearted souls, but outwardly, where everyone can see. And it’s okay, because we love you and we will miss you.

Today, Jessie Lee, as your number is being eternally retired, you are embraced by all your family, past and present. You played the game well. You showed up for every inning with all you had. You finished every season with gusto, no matter how well the team played. You rested in the off season. And you anticipated Spring Training with great joy. Now it’s your turn to take a final lap around the field and receive well deserved accolades as you are being inducted in Life’s Hall of Fame.