Saturday, April 07, 2018

"Living Revision" on the Page and the Soul

"Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice" by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew is on par with Anne Lamott’s "Bird by Bird" and Stephen King’s, "On Writing." This book was provided gratis by a third party to write an objective review. Yet, I’ve gained such a great deal from "Living Revision" I feel compelled to send Andrew a check. Reading this book was the equivalent of attending a week-long writing conference.

As the title makes clear, this is not just another book on the skills needed to be a writer. Andrew takes her readers into the demanding work of becoming an artisan of the craft. “Revision is an inner work and thus a spiritual practice…Revision is the work of learning to love. Love takes time. Love is what brings us and our writing to fruition.” Andrew loved Living Revision tenderly for six years. My copy is now dog eared and marked thoroughly and a few weeks.

Andrew has taught the art of writing to all ages for over almost three decades. Her ability to speak to the beginner as well as the published author shines. Every detail of Living Revision has been carefully crafted. Even the shape of the piece mirrors a writer’s notebook. Each chapter is filled with wisdom from the library of literary queens and kings. She offers practical tips that have been matured on her own desk. Throughout the pages she gently suggests writing prompts that become progressively more challenging. I began to anticipate them with great joy. To become a better writer, one must write and it can be helpful to do so at the behest of a master.

As valuable as the practical application must be, it’s the inner work where Andrew drove me, sometimes in my reluctance. Her insistence that the art and craft of revision has both a contemplative and violent nature, reminded me of rejected drafts that are begging my return. To revise is to sacrifice the ego and the beautiful words no one else could scribe, yet for the sake of finding one’s true voice. “Voice, is relational.” At times, Andrew tells us, we must trust that our unconscious voice will speak to the unconscious of the reader. Such is the power of words that are birthed from love onto the page.

Andrew is forthright in her vulnerability. She reveals her truth in full display in order to model the writer’s demand to become authentically present to the page. The writer must do more than simply show up. The one who dares to write must expose to the reader what is at stake for the author. The writer must know and experience the “heartbeat” of both the inner and outer purpose of the project. “Why you write shapes how you write,” which is “usually born of some discomfort.” The more the writer is willing and capable of settling into this discomfort, “the better we can harness its energy.” Here, Andrew is revealing the psychic dark work of the writer in solitude. To write is to be alone with one’s life and recognize that “Perfection punishes the soul; it is an elusive and damaging goal.”

Typically, when I review a book, the critic in me rises easily to the page. For Living Revision, I have none. And now my critique of any future work, my own included, will be based on how much love is evidenced in the revision of the work. I need to find Andrew’s address so I can mail her my check.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Pink Jesus in a Wyrd World

Sometimes things are so weird, they can’t be ignored. This year, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day and now Easter falls on April Fools’ Day. What an odd circumstance of synchronicity for two holy days in the same year. While it’s not the only time this has happened, it does me make me wonder about the confluence of the sacred and secular in our culture. There is a very murky space between the holy and the profane, but it’s often in this peculiar spiritual dream space where we can find illumination.

Illumination is not about receiving rational answers to unanswerable mysteries. Illumination is becoming comfortable living in a world of dream logic. (When dreaming the scene makes total sense, and then we wake up, the experience is difficult to explain.)

I’ve found in most forms of Christianity, people want Jesus and God to be something like the Magic 8 Ball, or an oracle who answers our questions. Let me introduce you to Pink Jesus. He was given to me by a young adult from St Brigid’s Community. He’s a very beautiful figurine of the Resurrected Jesus, a 12-inch, molded plastic that has a ceramic feel and a nice weight. The figurine has long flowing hair and robes. His right hand has two fingers extended in the sign of blessing. His left-hand rests upon the sash draped across his shoulders, representing the loving Sacred Heart of Jesus. And pink represents God’s love and forgiveness.

The most fascinating part of Pink Jesus is you can ask him questions. Inside the figure, floats a multisided dice. Anyone have a question for Pink Jesus?

Some of the answers are: Wait for a sign. The holy water will sting. Watch out for the lightening. Pray harder. I still love you. Let me ask dad.

Need an answer? Consult the Pink Jesus. Sounds funny, odd, maybe a little sacrilegious, I guess that’s why I like it. You kind of have to be willing to accept the idea of dream logic in order to imagine such oddities. The idea of resurrection lives in the world of dream logic.

Mary Magdalene was living in the world of dream logic on that dark morning when she went to visit Jesus’ tomb. She had gone there looking for the dead body of Jesus. The tomb was empty. Her grief of losing Jesus was compounded by believing that his body had been stolen.

In her despair, two angels appeared, asking her “Why are you crying?” She was not comforted. But then, she encountered a man she believed to be the keeper of the cemetery. He asked her why she was sobbing.

Then the man called her by name. Jesus the Christ, the resurrected one, whispered her name. Mary Magdalene herself was resurrected into the experience of Jesus’ resurrection. She had an unexplainable mystical experience. Hearing Jesus the Christ call her name was so powerful it transformed her life. So much so that Mary was eventually able to mystically translate her dream logic into a way of living her life. She lived in a perpetual state of being resurrected.

Her mystical experience gave her the power to become the disciple to the disciples. A woman, a mystic, would be the first evangelist, not Peter, not John, not Paul, but Mary Magdalene. She would use her mystical experience to hold the frightened community of Jesus’ followers together. Her mystical relationship with Jesus and her understanding of his teachings fueled the fire needed to inspire the followers of Jesus to move out of the prison of their fear into a life of discipleship.

Times I wish I could have an experience like Mary Magdalene.
A wise Irishman once asked me, “You wouldn’t be insulting God by looking for him, now would you?” My natural instinct is to search for God, to ache for a mystical experience. Yet, the more I look, the less likely it will be discovered. I search for answers and only find more questions. The more I cling to a dream, the more likely I am to choke it to death.

The story of Easter teaches us that Jesus the Christ will find us in the space between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the profane. He will find us in our grief and in our despair. He will find us in our dark journey through the shadowlands of dusk and dawn. And in those in between places, he will teach us how to live with endless questions. He will teach us how to live in the world of dream logic. He will give us wisdom. And he will call us by our name. Amen.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Get on that Donkey and Ride

One of the great joys of St Peter’s Episcopal Church is their labyrinth. Many mornings after we drop off our six-year-old grandson for school at St Peter’s, our three-year-old grandson will want to walk the labyrinth. Actually, he runs it. But he’s careful to stay on the path. And when we pick up the six-year-old after school, he also wants to walk the labyrinth. He walks it carefully and with intention.

Often, during the service at St. Peter’s, I can see people walking the labyrinth. People walk and pray the labyrinth for countless reasons: to ask God for guidance, to discern important decisions, to deal with grief, to seek calm in the solitude of the labyrinth.

To walk the labyrinth is to go on a spiritual pilgrimage. You don’t have to go to an exotic land to go on pilgrimage. Life itself is a pilgrimage. Our life is a series of daily pilgrimage experiences that comprise one continuous pilgrimage. We can either live our life intentionally while we’re on our pilgrimage, or we can walk through life unconscious, just stumbling from day to day.

Sometimes we plan our pilgrimage—other times it just comes at us, unexpected, with devastating potential. It’s at those moments we must decide to walk the journey with intention and purpose. Palm Sunday is a metaphor for living life as an intentional pilgrimage, even when we know it will not end well. The story of Jesus at the end of his life, models for us how to live through life’s worse circumstances, with purpose.

A pilgrimage, like walking the labyrinth, is a four-fold journey—a four-step process.

First, we must decide to walk.
Second, we walk the circuitous path.
Third, we stop in the center at the stone.
Fourth, we make our journey home to a new normal— being one with God; there we are putting on the mind of Christ.

In the first phase, we must decide to live our life intentionally with purpose. Especially at the darkest moments of our life. The moment when we realize our dreams are dashed, we lose our job, our soul mate walks out on us, cancer appears, our loved one dies. These situations almost defy us to live with purpose and intention. But, that’s what Jesus did. He pretty much knew where he was headed and knew it wouldn’t end well. But, he got on the donkey and rode into Jerusalem.

And what about all those people shouting Hosanna? You know those people. The ones who tell you, “this is God’s will for your life.” Or, “God only gives what you can handle.” Or, “While we don’t know why this is happening, one day we’ll see the purpose in it all.” Frankly, that’s theological bullshit. People say those things to make themselves feel better. Simply listen, pray, and sit with those who are suffering. Instead of singing Hosanna, Jesus’ cheerleaders could have walked with him and stayed by his side during the most difficult time of his life.

Second, we must accept the reality that the path of our life will never be a straight line. We will always be walking a circuitous path. We will constantly be feeling that we’re experiencing déjà vu. Jesus had walked into Jerusalem countless times. He knew the road, he knew the way. Yet, this time everything was different. The road was muddier. The sky was darker. The path seemed to be going in circles. He was light-headed when he stepped off that donkey and walked in the Temple. And when the tables went flying, his supporters scattered. But Jesus would not be deterred. He was intent on walking his pilgrimage no matter how risky the future.

Third, every pilgrimage has a moment, if we look for it, when we must stop and reflect—those moments when we can stand still and feel the presence of the divine. In those moments, we reach out and grab hold of God, the solid stone in our life. In those moments, we are in the center of stillness, held in God’s love—even if only for a second. We get a glimpse of those moments in Jesus’ life; they appear when we witness his calmness in the face of an unjust attack. And we see it again in his resolve to stay faithful to his calling even when his friends deserted him.

The last stage of the pilgrimage, is to return home to a new normal—being at one with God. We have been changed as the result of the pilgrimage. We have died and been resurrected and no one has noticed. I was in Florence, Italy at the museum where Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of David stands in all his beautiful majesty. In the small gallery before entering the long hallway where David is displayed, there hangs three paintings. One being a life size depiction of the resurrected Jesus. He is sitting in the tomb, slumped over, like he just woke up. His wounds are raw and the dried blood stains his skin. He appears like any other human being, having survived the most brutal experience of his life.

I believe, that though Jesus thought he would be crucified, he was not counting on any form of resurrection. To be human, he had to live with the same uncertainty and fear of death that we all must live with each day.

In this phase of the pilgrimage, we’re not sure if we’re living in the afterglow of resurrection or living with the worst hangover of our life. Sometimes the new normal of resurrection makes our head spin with a dizzying nausea.

Resurrection is a risky potential that we have to die to experience. Sometimes the death is metaphoric. Sometimes, it’s real in its finality. But to experience resurrection, we must fully lean into the confusing complexity of life and death—for it is there that we will know the vast capacity of God’s love—there we will be at one with the Divine, there we will put on the mind of Christ.

Three years ago, I planted some marigolds in two large pots on our front porch. They grew very nicely. Someone told me that when the flowers withered to pinch them off in order to stimulate new growth. When I pinched off the dead flowers, I just dropped them in the pot. Then the next year, I planted some different flowers in those pots. But, the marigolds returned with abandon and took over the pots from the new flowers. In fact, the marigolds popped up wild in some beds on the ground. Wherever there was water those marigolds sprout.

We are planted in the dark moist earth of God’s soul. The mystery within us stirs and growth happens below the surface. In the warmth of the sun, we emerge and grow. As the season changes, we die some form of death. To live, is to die. And to die, is to live. When we decide to walk again, the process of resurrection begins.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

I've Been Bitten by a Snake

I’ve been a writer for the devotional book, “Forward, Day by Day” as well as their annuals The idea is to write a profoundly moving devotion in 300 words or less. People want to read good stories that are inspiring, yet not controversial. Basically, the writer has to think of thirty different ways of saying that God loves you, while being happy, sweet, joyful, and emotionally poignant.

Writing these devotionals are much like writing a sermon for an Episcopal congregation. The preacher is given a prescribed scripture from which they must tell an entertaining story; best if it’s funny; provide some important theological insight; be sure and not offend anyone; all in less than ten minutes.

The most recent survey by the Pew Foundation cited that the number one reason for attending church was good preaching. In most churches, there is only one preacher who is left with an impossible task; deliver a sermon that keeps the congregation begging for more.

I’ve now wasted ninety seconds explaining why it is impossible to write a funny and inspiring sermon on the readings from Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21. Sometimes, though, you just have to go for it.

St Paul said, that spiritual infants need milk, but the mature must eat solid spiritual food. (I Cor. 3:2 and Hebrews 5:12) And Jesus said, let those who have ears, hear.

These readings require mature spiritual ears to hear and understand what the Spirit is saying to the Church. Both texts reference serpents as agents of poison and healing, similar to the caduceus. To the uninitiated these strange stories defy meaning. To the mature Christian, however, these texts lie at the root of how we can become one with God through Christ. They are also windows into the mystical Anglican theology regarding the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

In medieval art there are at least two paintings that depict St John holding a chalice with either a serpent or a dragon coming out of the wine. (Alonso Cano 17th century; see the Ashmolean Museum). The serpent and dragon represent the mystical power found in the Eucharist; which is both poisonous and healing.

Poisonous, in that becoming one with God through Christ has a price. That price is participation in God’s creative work. The individual must accept their responsibility in becoming one with God. There’s no free ticket. A person can’t just say, I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior and I’m good to go, I’m saved. That is infant’s milk. Collectively, we are already saved by the grace of God, that’s universal. God’s salvific work has been completed. That, however, is not the end goal of being a Christian; the work of eating solid food must continue in order to mature the Christian.

To become one with God is the spiritual goal of being an Anglican. Anglicanism teaches that becoming one with God requires God’s grace plus the individual and the community’s spiritual practices. These practices are the way Anglicans work out their salvation. Anglican theology follows the admonition of St Paul, who said, work out your own salvation by putting on the mind of Christ (Philippians 2) and of St James, who said that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). These spiritual practices are spelled out very clearly in the baptismal covenant (found in the Book of Common Prayer): follow the teaching of the apostles, receive the Eucharist, pray, resist evil, repent when necessary, proclaim the Good News, serve the Christ that is in all persons, love your neighbor as yourself, and strive for justice and peace by respecting the dignity of every human being. That is the work of becoming a mature spiritual Christian. It’s not optional. The individual relationship with God and the church’s relationship with God depend on doing this work.

The process of maturation also has a mystical component as spelled out in the prayers of the Holy Eucharist. There are at least three mystical parts to the efficacy of the Eucharist. Today (at St Peter’s Episcopal Church) we are using Rite II, Prayer B. This prayer is the most Incarnational of the six prayers used in the Book of Common Prayer. Incarnation means that God is present in Christ, in all of creation, and in every human being. The prayer states that God’s goodness and love have been made known to us in creation, in humanity, and in Jesus.

The first mystical effect happens to us individually. In this prayer, we ask that by the act of eating the bread and drinking the wine we will be united with Christ in his sacrifice. In other words, by consuming the bread and wine, we are being turned into Christ crucified. That statement brings with it a lot of poison; the expectation is that as individuals we will be doing our work, our sacrifice, which, thereby, brings us healing, as well as creation.

The second mystical effect is universal, touching all of creation. The Eucharistic prayer says “In the fullness of time, put all things in subjection under your Christ.” Those words mean that the act of celebrating the Holy Eucharist has an effect on all of God’s creation. Whether one receives the Eucharist or not, the efficacy of the prayers have a cosmic impact. The world can be affected unconsciously by our work through the Eucharist, as well as our prayers, and our practices. (See Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, especially “Divine Milieu” and “Hymn of the Universe.”)

The third effect of the Eucharist is on God. Because the Eucharist effects creation, and God is incarnated in creation, therefore, the divine is altered by the work of the Eucharist. We are participating with God in the continual creative act of renewal. We are responsible to God and all of creation for our participation in God’s work. By our sanctifying, making holy, all of creation, we recognize that God is present in all of creation and any good or damage we bring to creation is equally done to God. That’s some serious poison, but that work can also have a deep healing effect.

To understand these concepts requires much more than a ten-minute sermon. That’s why The Book of Common Prayer admonishes the people to read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest the scripture. Anglicans also hold that their prayer shapes their belief. And this is the work of the mature Christian who will be able to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Why is that Cat Tied to a Tree?

(St Peter's Episcopal Church has four services each weekend. The liturgy at those services are usually varied and range from very traditional to theologically creative. During the six consecutive Sundays of Lent, the six different Eucharistic Prayers in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer will be used at each service, consecutively. This will be something quite different for the people at St Peter's; challenging them to consider their traditions, their reasons, and their beliefs.)

I love good stories, especially when they're told by a gifted storyteller. Recently, I heard author and theologian Peter Rollins tell a parable about a monk and a cat. There was a monk who lived alone in a monastery. Every day the monk would enter the monastery to pray. At about the moment the monk would be deep in his meditation, the cat would come along and rub against his back and then lick his face, totally disturbing the monk's ability to focus on his prayers. Finally, one morning, as the monk was walking into the monastery he saw the cat. He picked it up and took him outside and tied the cat to a large tree. When the monk had finished praying he went outside and let the cat free. Thus, began the monk's new ritual. Every morning before praying he would gather up the cat and tie him to tree just outside the monastery's door.

Over time, other monks joined the monastery. After many years, the eldest monk died. But his younger followers kept up the practice of tying the cat to the tree before their morning prayers. Then one day the cat died. The monks went to town and bought another cat so they could continue their ritual of tying the cat to the tree before their morning prayers. Generations of monks continued the practice of tying a cat to the tree that stood outside the monastery door. After seven generations, the tree died. So, the monks planted a special tree in its place so that they could continue the practice of tying a cat to the tree before beginning morning prayers.

Eventually, scholars came to the monastery to study the phenomena of tying a cat to the tree before praying. The scholars studied and wrote treatises on the theological reasons and practices of tying a cat to a tree before praying.

This story has caused me to wonder if the Book of Common Prayer and our Episcopalian worship practices may have suffered the same loss of institutional memory as the monks who kept tying a random cat to a tree.

The Book of Common Prayer was first written by Thomas Cranmer in 1549 as part of the Anglican Reformation and its separation from the Roman Catholic Church. There were three major theological changes that Cranmer instituted. The prayer book was written in English as opposed to Latin, thereby giving the people access to what was being said at the Mass. As well, the new prayer book loosened the Roman Catholic theology underpinning the sacrifice of Christ in the Mass, (the Holy Eucharist) making subtler the understanding that God's sacrifice of Christ as necessary for salvation. And Cranmer moved the theology of the blessing of the bread and wine away from the literal transformation of the bread and wine in the body and blood of Jesus Christ, to a more nuanced understanding, whereby the bread and wine became the "presence" of Christ.

Eventually, the Church of England came to America with the first settlers. The American Revolution naturally separated American Anglicans from their mother Church, necessitating new bishops and the writing of a new prayer book. The first Episcopal (American Anglicans) prayer book was written in 1789. It was based primarily, but not solely on, the Church of England's 1662 BCP. Minor revisions were made in the Episcopal prayer book until 1928, when language was re-introduced into the communion service, returning the Mass to be more theologically congruent with the Roman Catholic Church, particularly Christ being both priest and victim. (See particularly Hymn 460, "Alleluia, Sing to Jesus" where it uses the language, (Jesus) "our great High Priest, thou on earth both Priest and victim in the Eucharistic feast.")

In 1979, the Episcopal Church developed a new Book of Common Prayer. The new BCP maintained the language of the 1928 Prayer Book in the Rite I service. The more contemporary language, however, of the Rite II service somewhat softened the theological position of Christ as both priest and victim. The theology of the blood atonement of Christ (Jesus had to die on the Cross for the forgiveness of sins and salvation), however, still dominates the Eucharistic liturgy.

Interestingly enough, The Catechism at the back of the prayer book, is more nuanced in its explanation of Christ's offering on the cross.

What lies at the heart of any Eucharistic liturgy is the theology upon which it is constructed. Those theological issues can be broken into three questions: Did God sacrifice Jesus on the Cross? Did Jesus have to die on the Cross so that our sins could be forgiven? And, are the elements of bread and wine transmuted into the perpetual body and blood of Jesus Christ?

There are theologians who would say, "Yes" in answer to all those questions. There are also theologians who would say "No" to all those questions. There are theologians who would "Yes" to some and "No" to others. And there are also theologians who would say that those are the wrong questions.

What is the official teaching of the Episcopal Church? Ah, there's the rub. It depends on who you ask? There are theologically safe answers and there are theologically risky answers.

In the Episcopal Church, one must always keep in mind the vows the priest commits to at their ordination, which thereby explains the range of risk any priest might take by tinkering with the liturgy.

The priest is asked: "Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?"

And the priest responds: "I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church."

There are a few germane questions for this conversation: What if the priest's theology changes over the course of time? How could a priest say words that they may not believe to be congruent with their own theology? And how could a lay person participate in a service where they don't agree with the theology of the church or the priest?

The answer to these questions could be found in the rich poetic language and symbolism of the liturgy; what's known as theopoetics. In other words, the poetical language and symbolism that manifests in the liturgy are open for interpretation; the same as with any poetry. Though we are all saying the same words, what I think, feel, intuit, and imagine most likely could be something very different than anyone else in the room.

The most important questions are: Do you know what you believe? And do you know why you believe it? And are you willing to tolerate other people in your church who believe something vastly different than you do?

Is it okay with you that the liturgy at a Rite I service demands that Jesus is both priest and victim? While at the same time your church might offer another service where the liturgy suggests that Jesus willingly gave himself over to the integrated process of becoming one with God through birth, life, death, and rebirth; and through that action he models for us our own process of becoming one with God. Or, a third, presenting the theology of Richard Rohr, which states that Jesus did not die in order to change God's mind about humans (Jesus sacrificed for our sins) but that Christ died instead to change human's mind about God (God is a God of love and not retribution).

The question for any Episcopal congregation must be: Can the priest and the people be pastorally sensitive enough to authentically accommodate a wide range of theological positions while maintaining the necessary space in their own life to continue to evolve both theologically and psychologically?

Or, in more practical terms, "Do we know why the monk tied the cat to the tree?"

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Communicating with the Feminine Face of God

My first walking pilgrimage in Ireland was an alchemical soup of missteps and mystical experiences, most of which happened as the result of being lost. My son and I walked from Dublin to Glendalough and then turned west toward Kildare, the home of Ireland's patron, St Brigid. I wanted to make a pilgrimage to Kildare because I felt compelled to name the young adult group I was leading, St Brigid's Community. It felt right to name an open, progressive, Episcopal young adult group after a woman who would transverse Druidry and Christianity, lead a religious order of both women and men, and was known as a mid-wife and healer of humans and animals alike.

My son and I walked through deep dark forests, mucked through wet bogs, and jumped over rapid running streams. We made our way along the well-marked Wicklow Way and then suffered the illusions of the nearly unmarked St Kevin's Way. Though terribly lost at times, we were not to be deterred on our pilgrimage to St Brigid's home.

On a dark rainy day, we came to St. Kevin's Pool, a frigid pond that the ancients used for medicinal bathing. In order to stay on the trail, we had to jump across a narrow, rapid, deep stream. My son went first and cleared it with some effort. Age, fatigue and my forty-pound pack made the stream look like the Grand Canyon. I took a running leap. My front foot hit the slippery rocks of the opposite bank, but my pack pulled me backwards. With one strong arm, my son reached out, grabbed my poncho and pulled me to safety. My hollow fear of falling out of control into disaster was immediately reversed into redemption. The experience was like a dream, it felt like an out of body experience, yet it was so absolutely real. My heart was pounding and my head was spinning. Standing on the other side, I had to re-orientate my bearings and catch my breath. It was a mystical experience woven into the fabric of reality.

Mystical experiences only appear in our lives when we are willing to take the risk of free falling out of control. No net, no guarantee-no risk, no gain. The goal of the spiritual life is to live in a state of mystical redemption- a perpetual spiritual free fall. The redemption is not in being caught, but in the willingness to risk not being caught, while at the same time, knowing we are already standing on the opposite shore. Living the spiritual life is a dizzying experience. Yet, the joy of living such a life is that we are never alone. On that dark rainy day, my son kept me from getting soaked or worse. He was also the living manifestation of the presence of the divine.

For me, Saint Brigid has become the perpetual presence of the divine. She is an agent of the One Holy Living God. In the tradition of Celtic spirituality, one never asks the question, "Was Brigid (or any other person) real?" That's the same as asking someone if God is real. The answer is always of course they are real, because the story of Brigid is not about a person in history, but about the femininity of the divine. Brigid is swept up in the great mythopoetic Jewish tradition of Sophia, the feminine face of God. Included in that wisdom tradition are the myriad of feminine faces, the Druid's goddess Brigid, the Jewish Sarah, Rachel, Bathsheba, Solomon's Wisdom Queen of the South (the Black Shulamite, the Queen of Sheba), Christian's Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Ireland's Brigid, her daughter Black Brigid, and Revelation's Mary the Queen of Heaven. The scope of the feminine divine is carried in the multiple archetypal figures of womanhood and the power of feminine spirituality.

In meditation, I have a regular conversation with Brigid and with her daughter, Black Brigid. In the mythic Celtic tradition, Brigid was a druidess and the keeper of the ancient perpetual fire of the goddess Brigid. In this tradition, the job of the firekeeper was passed from mother to daughter for eons.

When I have these meditative conversations, I am engaging Brigid, Black Brigid the Firekeeper, the goddess Brigid, Mary the Mother of Gael, Sophia, and the face of God. And I am having a conversation with my soul. The soul of every male is the anima, the feminine manifestation of the Self. For women, the soul, the manifestation of the Self is masculine. To have a conversation with one's soul, is to be in union with the One Holy Living God that resides within us all.

Why do I have these conversations? To better understand myself and God. If I can understand the feminine, the opposite within me, then I have a better chance of understanding the divine that resides within me. I can ask Brigid, "In a spiritual sense, what does it feel like to be mother?" As a man, I can never have the experience of giving birth. Yet, knowing motherhood can deeply alter my spiritual experience.

The great medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said, "What difference does it make if Mary gave birth to Jesus, if I don't give birth to God every day in my life." Who better to ask than Sophia, Brigid, the feminine aspect of God, what it's like to give spiritual birth to the presence of the One Holy Living God?"

We can each give birth to our spiritual purpose-the child that comes from being at one with God. We birth our holy child, our holy purpose in life.
Who better for me to ask about how to do such a thing than Brigid, the keeper of the perpetual fire-a symbol of her spiritual purpose. She was the mid-wife and the hospice worker, the healer of the sick and protector of the poor. She has much wisdom to offer.

Should Brigid become everyone's saint. Of course not. We each have to be open to the saint, the self, that already resides within us-yet, has also become manifested in the external world. Brigid is the exterior manifestation of my own self. She is not me, yet she is me. Our saint, or our spiritual guide, might be an ancient person, like Brigid, or a bird, or an animal, or a standing stone. Who might be our guide is only limited by the voice of the divine and our imagination.

Maybe this spiritual guide will appear in your dream? That happened frequently in the Bible. Or maybe your guide will be an angel. That also happened quite often in the Bible. What I am suggesting is that we put flesh on God and on our own soul. God became one with Jesus. And Jesus told us that God had already become one with each of us. What I'm talking about is finding our way to becoming one with the Living God. You can't be in a relationship with God unless you have real conversations, that includes the words, "I love you, God." And to hear God say back, "I love you, too." A true mutual relationship shares feelings of pain and joy, darkness and light, birth and death. To be at one with God, is to be in love with God and to experience God in every person and thing; in the seen and the unseen; in the ugly and the beautiful.

Wednesday, on the eve of the Feast of Saint Brigid, the super moon was eclipsed by the earth's shadow, producing a blood moon. I walked that morning in a symbolic pilgrimage of living under the mystery of the earth and symbolism of the divine. The feminine light of the moon mated with the black shadow of the sun, producing the red child, the Philosopher's Stone, the Christ of the Self. Being alive means living into one's spiritual purpose-being in a perpetual state of oneness with the Holy Living God. Seeing the glory of God being born into a specific moment of creation is like seeing God being born into every moment of our life. But to live like this requires the risk of living in the state of a perpetual free fall-the risk is the redemption.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Being in a Trance

How many decisions do you make every day? And how do you make those decisions? Today, it seems we hear a lot of "I like it" or "I don't like it." I like a certain coffee shop. I don't like this other coffee shop? The real question is, why do you like one over the other?

How many major decisions do you make every year? Major decisions might be things such as, buying a car or a home, or choosing the school your children are going to attend. Or if you're going to college, which one to attend? Would you make those decisions simply based on whether you "like it" or not?

How many life changing decisions have you made? Things like, whether to get married, or get divorced? How about deciding whether to move to another city, or another country? What factors would you consider in making these decisions?

There can be dozens of factors that affect our decisions. And the uncertainty about the outcome can be paralyzing enough that we never actually make the decision. How often has fear kept us trapped in a situation we desperately want to change?

And where does God fit into all this process? Does God talk to us by sending us a text or an email, or maybe an old-fashioned letter in the mail box? How about skywriting? A still small voice? And how do we know it's God and not our own mind convincing us that our "certain feeling": is really the divine?

Recently, I had the great privilege of being a guest speaker at the OHALAH conference. OHALAH is a Hebrew acronym, that in English stands for, Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. Jewish Renewal is a movement, not a denomination of Judaism. This association is a cooperative of Hasidic Jews who practice the inclusion of all people, including their potential for God's calling in their life to become rabbis, cantors, and chaplains through ordination. They practice Kabbalah and many of those in this movement would be considered mystics. The Jewish Renewal follows the teachings of Rabbi Zalman, who recently passed away just shy of his 90th birthday. Reb Zalman rewrote the Hasidic prayer book, infusing contemporary life and language into their daily practice. He insisted that life should be filled with a laughter, which would diffuse the temptation of taking ourselves too seriously. Hasidic Jews practice an integrated orthodoxy that includes the mind, body, soul, and spirit. They meditate on the many faces of God. They sing their prayers and move their bodies all as a means of worshipping the One Holy Living God.

They invited me to join them for morning prayer. They sang, chanted, and moved for forty minutes. Most of the prayers were in Hebrew, releasing me from having to intellectually know what was being said. This freedom lifted me into the space of feeling the prayers in my body. They created a safe space that fetched my soul to sway and rock with the rhythm of the sounds. The forty minutes felt like forty seconds and at the same time like forty years; the experience was timeless. It wasn't long enough, but it was like I had been there most of my life. These people made me feel at home.

We spent the day together discussing how to be pastorally present in a world filled with so much dis-ease. As pastors, we engage people on a daily basis who are frightened, disturbed, and confused by the state of our country and the world. And because of their fear, they suffer pain in their personal lives. Life is hard and people are looking for guidance from their pastor. People are seeking guidance on how to make difficult decisions in a world that's seemed to turn itself upside down. As pastors, we can't help but take on the feelings of pain and uncertainty of those to whom we minister. Then the question comes, "What do I as a pastor do with all of these dark emotions. How do I take care of myself? Lots of people making lots of important personal and corporate decisions. How do we make the best decisions for ourselves and for our community?

I believe that the best way to make decisions is by being at one with God. Being at one with God comes about through a lot of personal interior work. It's not something that happens over night or simply because you want it to. Some of you attended my classes on Carl Jung's The Red Book and the Three Mystical Mary's. In these classes I laid out the framework for the personal interior work required to become one with God.

When we are at one with God, then we can hear the Spirit of God. I call this living a life of discernment, the art and practice of being at one with God. It's a way to live, move, and have one's being in the world; including affecting the decisions we make on a daily basis. I believe that being at one with God will help us discern the myriad of decisions we face every day.

There are some basics in the discernment process. First, you have a brain, it's okay to use it. Studying and gathering information are vital to making good decisions. Second, if at all possible, take your time in making any major or life changing decision. Patience is a good mentor. Third, making decisions in a silo typically means we haven't explored all the options and haven't heard all the important voices. Not including others in our process most likely means we have left out some dimension of God's voice. And fourth, make your decisions bathed in prayerful meditation and contemplation. In other words, we must do our personal work at becoming one with God.

One of the many beautiful experiences I had at the gathering of rabbis was to witness someone in a state of deep meditation-a trance. As a part of my presentation, I asked those in attendance have to imagine an interior conversation with someone, a departed loved one, a biblical character, an angel. Several rabbis at the conference practice Kabbalah, a part of which is a deep meditation on one of the many faces of God. One of the rabbis sitting near me dropped into a trance-like state. For me, it was a mystical experience witnessing someone else have a mystical experience.

The Christian tradition of Ignatian spirituality somewhat mirrors the Kabbalah's practice of meditation. In one of the practices of Ignatian spirituality, you enter meditation through the scripture. For example, in today's reading, (Mark 1:21-28) we hear that Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. To enter into the meditation, I imagine that I am sitting in synagogue. I spend time looking around the synagogue, taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells. Then, I see Jesus. What does he look like? What is he wearing? Then, I hear his voice. What does his voice sound like?

Then, Jesus turns to me. He's looking at me. He asks me, "What is your question?" And I ask Jesus what's on my heart. And I wait quietly, patiently, for him to speak. I sit as long as it takes. Maybe, Jesus doesn't answer in the first session. I have to repeat the meditation, again and again, waiting for an answer. After each period of meditation, I journal about the experience.

You may be wondering how one would know whether Jesus was talking to you are you were simply fantasizing. There are a few ways to help you feel more comfortable that you're hearing Jesus correctly. One way is, if this is your first time doing this kind of meditation, you most likely won't get an answer the first time you try it. It took a lot of practice for the rabbi at the conference I was attending to enter into a trance state. Faith requires patience. Another way to know you're hearing Jesus is that what he tells you is congruent with his biblical teachings. If it's not, you probably should share your experience with a spiritual director just to double check. A third way of knowing that Jesus is speaking is to recognize those moments when you hear something from him that you don't want to hear. That's probably Jesus talking.

In these meditations, you are asking Jesus about something in your life. You're not seeking answers on behalf of someone else. You must start with your own work. Once you do that, then together, the community can discern its own work.