Posts

YES VIRGINIA, THE UNITARIANS HAVE MYSTICS-TWO TRANSCENDENTALISTS (PART I)

OK, OK, Unitarians do not have (to my knowledge anyway) ardent pious folk who took the path of asceticism to the degree of wearing a hair shirt or living in a desert cave for decades. For edification’s sake, asceticism is the part of the mystic or saint’s path that includes renouncing worldly pleasures in order to become closer to God.  Those who have taken these extreme measures did seem to have some remarkable “other worldly” spiritual experiences (see Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Rabi’a of Persia, and lots of others in almost every other faith, including Buddhists and Hindus (Gandhi chose a life of asceticism as well).  So, I am not knocking it.  It just that most people do not feel such a calling. 

In fact, most people are adverse to giving up anything they find pleasurable, even when they know it is bad for them (hence the challenges during Lent…) However, no matter how we may kick and scream, there must be some giving up of comfort, security, and ego, in order to attain any real semblance of Communion (with a capital C).      

The first and most famous of the Unitarian “mystics”, who chose a counter cultural lifestyle of purposeful simplicity that reflected and embodied both an ancient and more modern approach for those seeking unity with God, with Nature, and others, was Henry David Thoreau.  Coming from a family of wealth and privilege, with a Harvard education, Thoreau (much maligned in his day for it…he was considered eccentric by the kindest and a nut by the rest) chose to live in a hut in the woods of Concord, MA for two years to isolate himself from society so that he could better understand himself and others.  His classic book, Walden, or, Life in the Woods, now required reading for most High School students, is a compilation of this experiment.  Unlike the Desert Fathers, he was not intending to live as a hermit, and did take visitors, he was instead seeking to understand life more deeply by consciously removing many of its distractions.          

What Thoreau was emphasizing (among other themes) was the necessity of solitude, contemplation, and nature to “transcend” our over hurried existence.  His words and works still call to us today, timeless in their appeal: “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will become simpler, solitude will not be solitude…nor weakness weakness.” While many of his oft quoted words ring of the uniquely American self-reliant spirit, they too challenge us to think and be, rather than to be always about the business of doing.  For as Thoreau puts it, “Being is the great explainer.”  

Many of his criticisms of society were harsh and at many times his views are expressed in an overly zealous manner.  Is that not true of the prophets, the social reformers, and those considered holy men and women of every place and time? I am not suggesting by this question that Thoreau was unique or special as a long revered saint, he was a man with his foibles and misinformation.  Yet there is a reason we keep reading him.

Thoreau is not asking us to build ourselves a cabin and live in the forest, he is asking that we shake off our complacency, that we do not live an unquestioned and unreflected life.  If we are happy with our lives, that’s good and yet we should challenge our assumptions and think more broadly.  If we are unhappy, he is pointing to another way.

“If a man (or woman :)) does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Please follow and like us:

WHAT DOES BEING ‘SPIRITUAL NOT RELIGIOUS’ REALLY MEAN?

On March 19th, my blog post was entitled The Top Ten Religious Words that the Spin Doctors Doctored. Under #6 was the word ‘religion’, I wrote: “I don’t want to beat a dead horse here.  I mean, after all, hasn’t this word been bludgeoned enough.  But, this word, which has come to represent difference and divisiveness, was originally just a verb, religio, meaning ‘bringing together that which is separated.’ So, all I’m gonna say is, huh?”

My intention in this post is not to try to get you to go to church or not go to church, but to think about the implications involved in the personal belief statement of being “spiritual but not religious.”

When I’m at a party, the gym, at a school function…and I hear, “Oh, I’m spiritual not religious”, I always ask what the person means by that.  Usually, the answers are a combination of the following,  “I didn’t agree with a lot of what the xyz church that I grew up in believes”, “I don’t get anything out of going to church”, “Religion is a construct created by the powerful to appease the poor and downtrodden”, “They’re so hypocritical, the church leaders and so many people I know that go to church”, and so on. 

You know what, I agree with a lot of what they tell me.  There has been a lot of “unholy alliances” between individuals, governments, and church bodies.  Much of what they articulate about why they don’t go to church or practice a faith or why they feel disillusioned or skeptical about much of what is essentially dogma (a good working definition of dogma being, “a corpus of doctrines set forth in an authoritative manner by a church”), are all things I can give a hearty Amen to.

So when people say they are not religious, they mean they have chosen not to limit themselves to the reduced definition of religion as a particular church, synagogue, or mosque with its doctrines, its own definitions of sin, salvation, and exclusions.   

When they do express some of their spiritual practices or ways of experiencing the spiritual, there is also much to concur with. My Buddhist friends use a variety of meditations, both alone and in groups.  And while some will agree that using the original meaning of religion, they are indeed religious. While  others, on principle, still detest the idea. They prefer to call it a philosophy of thought. Here, again, semantics do indeed shape and inform our worldview. Whether it be early bad experiences with a “religion” that has scarred or the in-your- face fundamentalists whose fanatical zeal causes one to recoil…the result is the same.    

Some friends are in 12 step programs, recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, and their loved ones. One of the principles of these programs is that they are a spiritual not religious program.  Again, meaning they are asking you to discover for yourself “God as you understand Him or Her” and to turn your life and will over to the care of this “Higher Power”.  However, this is not done alone, but rather with the aid and support of the group.

When I get a vague answer about trying to be a good person, they often add how they don’t need a church to become one (agreed). Most of the people who say this, I know to be good people, caring and true.  So, when I ask them if they could be a bit more specific, they say things like they go weekly with their family to volunteer at a food bank or they are a part of quilting bee that creates blankets for those undergoing cancer treatments.    All of the above examples include a component of community as part of the individual spiritual framework.

“My own kind of prayer” and “being in nature” (responses I often get) are also spiritual experiences and are vital parts of the equation, but are not complete without the balance of others.  I too often find a  centering while walking in the woods, a wonderful “un-lonely” solitude, that feels a communion with God. Yet it also feeds me so that I can help, serve, and nurture others and that I am able to receive the same from them.

In closing, an excerpt from A House for Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker:  

“Is it really preferable (0r even possible) to be religious alone?  Or, is there an importance to religious community life that need to be claimed anew, while protecting against the liabilities and dangers that community life can pose?  I strongly believe the answer to the first question is no and the answer to the second is yes.  We need life together, and we would be wise to invest in rebuilding the walls of community.  My suspicion is that religious conservatism has grown not because its theology is more inspiring than that of liberal theology, but because conservatives in recent decades have been better at creating and sustaining religious communities that offer people meaningful connection with one another and support in enduring life’s trials and tribulations.”

 So…I am back, congregants of the blogosphere!…new job…yada yada.

Please follow and like us:

Hot Season

There are times when the sun is shining and there are grateful breezes, yet the soul is suffering a hot season.  A sticky, humid sadness rises relentlessly to the surface and the human instinct is to turn away.  Even for me, one who has been preaching about holding and accepting the whole catastrophe of life for a long time now, whether it be the cool peace of good fortune or the disorienting blows of inevitable loss and change, I too am often caught by surprise. 

How prepared are any of us when a loved one dies, a child gets sick, a relationship ends, or we face our own mortality? Would anyone ever want to enter willingly into these spiritual deserts?  At first, our psyche gives us the anesthetic of denial.  Running is usually involved in this, either literally or figuratively, and can include drinking, eating, shopping, sleeping, or any other number of means of escape. The sense of needing to flee is intense.  But all matter of not looking at reality, no matter how effective, are temporary salves,  just shock absorbers.  Sooner or later, we need to become ready, to the best of our ability, to sit with those feelings that seem too hot to hold. 

This is the well-worn course to weather difficult times. Some Buddhists call this “relaxing with what is”, allowing pain, grief, and sadness an open vessel (us) to have their way sort of speak.  We learn to inquire into those emotions, describing what they feel like in the body, in a detached a way as possible.  Feeling our feelings, but not judging them. Allowing space for all sorts of internal experiences to be here, now.  I mean they’re here anyhow. If tears come, let them. Panic arises, we stay with it… spiritual warriors present to the storm.  Not trying to do away with any of it, not forcing our pain to pass quickly. We can continue to attempt to skip the process, but areas of our lives which we avoid have an uncanny way of repeating themselves in different guises until we learn.  We are beginning to discover a way to walk barefoot on the burning sand paths of our life’s journey.

 I say beginning, because each new day, every present moment is a chance to practice.  We may still run to our chosen addictions, from time to time, but we are more aware of what we are doing.  We are more able to be comfortable in our discomfort, to allow for ambiguity without immediately seeking resolution.   

Book of the Day When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron 

Quote from The Book of the Day: “When we have reminders of death, we panic. It isn’t just that we cut our finger, blood begins to flow, and we put on a Band-Aid.  We add something extra-our style.  Some of us just sit there stoically and bleed all over our clothes. Some of us get hysterical; we don’t just get a Band-Aid, we call the ambulance and go to the hospital.  Some of us put on designer Band-Aids.  But whatever our style is, it’s not simple.  It’s not bare bones.”

“Can’t we just return to the bare bones?  Can’t we just come back?  That’s the beginning of the beginning… Come back to square one, just the minimum bare bones.  Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time- that is the basic message.”

Please follow and like us:

Putting the Joy Back in Jihad

What’s so joyful about a jihad? It’s one of those experiences that afterwards we call a blessing in disguise.

The concept of jihad or holy war is embedded in the Quran, but it has, from its earliest beginnings, been fraught with multiple meanings.  Muslims often speak of jihad as both a struggle to submit to God’s will (considered the greatest of  jihads) and a battle against unbelievers (the lesser of the jihads).  Our focus today will be on the greater, the individual’s journey toward purity of the soul.

However, it is important to note that the jihad that points to a battle against unbelievers has more to do with Muslims being commanded to do something that they believe to be contrary to the law of God (which includes the sin of polytheism), or to those that dishonor or defeat the community of the faithful, at which point jihad becomes a duty.

It has never been historically true that Muslims are somehow obligated to wage war against those who do not surrender to Allah.  In fact, during what many call the Golden Age of Islam (from about the 9th to 12th centuries), “Muslims were ruling peacefully over large populations of non-Muslims without expending the slightest bit of effort to convert them or to challenge their beliefs.” (From Peace Be Upon You by Zachary Karabell). 

In addition, there is no Islamic jurist (classical or modern) that offers approval or legitimacy to what we now call terrorism.  The armed struggles of jihads of the past were elaborately regulated by Shari’a law (which simply means holy law, covering everything from fasting and pilgrimage to constitutional and criminal law). For instance, no women, children, or the aged are allowed to be killed (in principle).  You have to give fair warning of the opening of hostilities.  These jihads are considered wars in the traditional sense or political reforms or changes in economic policies, but do not in any way resemble the terrorist acts of the last several decades.  

“The greater jihad is something all devout individuals must wage… against their own desires. The mystics of Islam often spoke of jihad as a “dark night of the soul”, where the striver is faced with his/her demons and must confront them in order to stay on the path toward God.” (Karabell, pg. 126). It is a sense of purging and purifying oneself.  It may involve works such as fasting or penance, but primarily it is cleansing the heart from obstructive thoughts, such as envy, greed, revenge, and selfishness, that move us further away from our truest nature.

Christians recognize this metaphor from the work, Dark Night of the Soul (Our Book of the Day) by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish poet, mystic, and Carmelite priest.  It is used to describe a phase in a person’s spiritual life, marked by a sense of loneliness and desolation.  There has been much scholarly discussion as to whether the Christian was influenced by the Sufi or vice versa, but there is no conclusive evidence in either direction.

Interestingly, the inner turmoil of the soul is referenced by most spiritual traditions throughout the world as a necessary step toward a union with God or for a sense of wholeness.  

The Buddhists have a parallel in their practices called “the Knowledges of Suffering.”  In fact, the Buddhist writer Daniel Ingram speculates that the Dark Night is a common mystical state which is independent of any specific belief system.  He uses the term “maps” for the sequence of mental states:

“The Christian maps, the Sufi maps, the Buddhist maps, and the maps of the Khabbalists and Hindus are all remarkably consistent in their fundamentals.  These maps are talking about something inherent in how our minds progress in fundamental wisdom that has little to do with any tradition and lots to do with the mysteries of the human mind and body. ”

Jihad is a spiritually powerful word that describes a part of the necessary and well worn path toward a union with the divine; it is the process by which personal roadblocks that threaten our spiritual growth are removed.  By continually and willingly entering into jihad, the gifts of the spirit are manifold, including joy, peace, faith, and clarity.  The soul awakens.

 ” The reason for this has been clearly expounded; for ordinarily the soul never strays save through its desires or its tastes or its reflections or its understanding or its affections; for as a rule it has too much or too little of these, or they vary or go astray, and hence the soul becomes inclined to that which behooves it not.  Wherefore, when all these operations and motions are hindered, it is clear that the soul is secure against being led astray by them; for it is free.  For when the affections and operations of the soul are quenched, nothing can make war upon it.”  (Quote from the Book of the Day)

Tomorrow’s post: Ten Religious Words That The Spin Doctors Doctored

 

Please follow and like us: