Jun 222012
 

Thanks to my friend, Steve Schrader, for striking the spark that ignited this post.

In a recent blog post at Psychology Today, Carl Routlidge Ph.D.,  spoke of religion as a response to existential threats.  Angst – our deep, pervasive, and often shadowy feeling of dread, doubt, fear, despair, and anxiety in the face of life – is undoubtedly one of the driving factors behind religion.  Christian existentialists have reflected on this truth in great depth, as in Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be, to which I must pay homage.  While this post certainly reflects my own experiences and ideas, there is little here that isn’t more fully examined in Tillich’s work.

We have lots of unhealthy ways of responding to angst, and there are examples of such dis-ease in the imbalances of two extreme expressions of our religion.  Look closely and you can find it is the dank and musty secret in the closet behind the veil of a way that seems to be all about doves, rainbows, flowers, and honey.  On the other hand, it is also the searing smokey furnace in the basement underneath the way of hellfire and brimstone, world hating, and self-loathing.   In both cases, the energy of angst is not accepted for what it actually is, and this lack of acceptance amounts to a denial of our fear in the broadest sense.  Some of us even mistakenly speak of fear as the opposite of love, as if it is the very worst evil there is.   Its energy is therefore rerouted into attitudes that not only feel safer to us and others, but also seem to facilitate actually doing something in response to the supposed causes of our more specific fears.  For some of us, it is the barely bridled anger of a militant moralism obsessed with the dichotomy of sin and purity, and for others it is the sticky, saccharine sweet, whitewash of escapist optimism.  Some of us even jump back and forth from one of these extremes to the other.  To some extent, we must fall back on such defensive patterns in order to survive; it is the fight-or-flight response at the level of being itself.  Without it, we would too often be paralyzed in our angst.  We wouldn’t really live at all.

But is this all there is to religion?  Not according to those who have jesus-walking-on-water-benjamin-mcpherson[1rev]knowingly walked on the stormy waters of their own angst.  Accepting angst as something other than an evil to be vanquished is a vital part of an authentic faith.  This may be one of the deeper meanings in our language about fearing God.  According to Proverbs, that fear is intimately linked with wisdom, and in Psalms with humility and the desire for forgiveness and renewal.  As with existential philosophers and therapists, our great prophets, preachers and saints consistently tell us that there is something psychologically and spiritually healthy about standing naked before all the dark frightening aspects and possibilities of our existence – aloneness, uncertainty, impermanence, and pain.

Any genuine path of mysticism must include a deeper awareness, acceptance, and integration of these aspects of our being.  We may be drawn to mysticism as a way that seems to offer the ultimate escape from them but, if we are genuinely devoted to the fullest possible communion with Truth and Love, we cannot avoid them.  This inevitability is profoundly explored in the writings of St. John of the Cross, Mother Theresa, Soren Kierkegaard, and Paul Tillich among many others.  It can even be heard when Jesus describes the Way of the Cross:

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? Mark 8:31-37

His own personal angst is more dramatically recorded in his experience in the garden of Gethsemane:

Then Jesus went with them to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and he said, “Sit here while I go over there to pray.”He took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, James and John, and he became anguished and distressed.  He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch with me.”

 

He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father!  If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me.  Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”

Jesus in Gethsemane

Then he returned to the disciples and found them asleep.  He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour? Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation.  For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!”  Matthew 26:36-41

 

Part of the Good News is that it’s possible to discover something wonderful on the other side of all that darkness.  There is indeed a resurrection after the psychological crucifixion of accepting and learning to live with our anguish, distress, and crushing grief.   That resurrection isn’t the end of suffering; even after Jesus’ resurrection his body was still wounded caravaggio-thomasand still knew hunger.  Rather, we awaken to a clearer realization of the context of that suffering and the meaning we can give to it; in short, we can have life more abundantly, just as Jesus wished for us.  Accepting existence in its wholeness, and thus living life in our own wholeness, means no longer having to be constantly either at war with or trying to run away from ourselves, others, the world, or reality itself.  It bestows a peace that transcends the conflicts of our black-and-white either/or thinking without merely hiding them behind angelic fantasies.  With that peace comes awareness of our freedom to simply be; to live authentically; to try and to fail; to fall and get back up; to do something other than punish ourselves in pursuit of illusory perfection; to be co-creators of the richest kinds of beauty; and to know love in all its colors, flavors, scents, sounds, and textures, even when it is unrequited, and even where we once might have found nothing but indifference, fear, or hate.

Some of us also come to see this dynamic of psychological crucifixion and rebirth as only one example of a truly cosmic principle and pattern.  Our mystical experience gives us greater hope, if not genuine certainty, that there is much more to our existence than accidental interactions of energy occasionally coalescing in the form of a human brain destined for cellular decay.  By the same token, however, it can make the possibility of such annihilation fade to near insignificance compared to the awesome fact that there is indeed, right here and now, a virtually infinite amount of something rather than nothing, and that we are free to do with this miracle as we will!

Oh God, thank you just for this much!  Help us embrace our freedom in wholeness. Amen.

Agape

May 092012
 

origin of satanThe Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics, by Elaine Pagels

The title of this book seems somewhat misleading if all you see is, “The Origin of Satan.” The rest of the title is the real story.  Even so, by the end of the book I had a renewed appreciation for that “origin” business, since for me it became a constant reminder of how distorted and manipulated the idea of Satan has become from its Jewish roots.  It’s a good read, and I definitely recommend it for anyone ready to shake off some of the convenient dichotomies in our faith’s popular notions of Satan and evil.

The chapters of this book are:

  1. The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish War
  2. The Social History of Satan: From the Hebrew Bible to the Gospels
  3. Matthew’s Campaign Against the Pharisees: Deploying the Devil
  4. Luke and John Claim Israel’s Legacy: The Split Widens
  5. Satan’s Earthly Kingdom: Christians Against Pagans
  6. The Enemy Within: Dehumanizing the Heretics

Through these chapters, Pagels very thoroughly shows how a fringe idea (of Satan as a rebellious and fallen angel) evolved into a means for some members of the oppressed minority of early Christianity to define themselves in opposition to the evils they experienced and perceived in the world.  She then carefully illustrates how this new doctrine was expanded as part of official Christian theology, and how it was increasingly used as a way to stigmatize anyone or anything that would stand in the way of the emerging ecclesiastical hierarchy and its ambition to exercise worldly power.

As we should all know, this doctrine eventually became the justification for “good Christians” committing all the same heinous sins of oppression and persecution (and with even greater magnitude) against other minorities, both internal and external to the Church.  We became what we hated.  If Jesus spoke truly about knowing his followers by their fruits, then what has history shown us about the spirit of this doctrine?

One take-away for me is that it’s painfully obvious many of us are still playing this bloody game today.  And don’t think that I am merely taking a shot at militant evangelicals and fundamentalists; Christians calling themselves mystics, progressives, or liberals can do it too, and too often these various factions viciously hurl the accusations back and forth at each other.  Let’s also acknowledge the presence of this demonizing tactic in many contemporary Christians’ attitudes toward other religions, nations, political philosophies, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and so on.  I’m afraid that almost any wing of popular Christianity could, if too closely tied to political power, repeat this sad, gruesome old story of “lawfully” abusing those judged as under the influence of the Devil.  I’m also convinced that some of us are actively trying to do just that today, and not only in the USA.

The questions begged by this book include these:  What will it take for us to collectively let go of this temptation, this addiction, of demonizing others?  How do we do it without using the same dehumanizing tactics against our Christian siblings who hold onto this human-made doctrine as if it were a divine law?  How do we more fully express the wisdom and spirit of the Sermon on the Mount?

My guess is that it’s all got something to do with love and the mystical relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit in one’s own heart.  What do you hear emerging from the stillness and silence in your heart?

Jesus Christ, our beloved brother and teacher, and Mary Sophia, our beloved mother and counselor, may your merciful, forgiving, selfless love heal us and inspire us to more freely serve as your vessels in this world. Amen.

Apr 112012
 

I confess that I have often been a foolishly proud mystic.  In the wizardry of my physical and intellectual prime, I believed that through my studies of psychology and philosophy, through my spiritual practices, and aided by the grace of God, I had left behind many ordinary human troubles, and so much of my own past.  I would read these words of Paul and think I knew exactly where he was coming from because I believed I had already come and gone from there too:

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  1 Corinthians 13:11

And I must have put on a pretty convincing act!  I have received lots of praise for my seeming equanimity, wisdom, integrity, and self-confidence mixed with humility.  It’s not that there isn’t any truth to those appearances, but rather that there has certainly been more of a façade than I’ve been willing to admit to myself, let alone to others.  Even so, I’m quite sure I have often been more transparent to others than I realized, and that they knew I wasn’t as genuinely comfortable in my own skin as I wanted to seem.

Some of you, dear readers, will know what I mean when I say how very tired I am of finding myself trapped in old patterns of thought, feeling and behavior. If it hasn’t yet happened, the time may come when you know what it is like to look in the mirror and see a wounded, bewildered, incompetent, and insecure little child looking back at you through weary eyes under a furrowed and wrinkling brow.  At the relative midpoint of 50 years, I am awestruck by my own inability to be the “grown-up” I have wanted to be.  In fact, it often seems that I don’t manage life as well as I used to do, or as well as I thought I did, and so it is that these other words from Paul frequently ring in my ears:

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.  Romans 7:18b-19

In my darkest moments it has been easy to fall into the despair and nihilism voiced by the Preacher of Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. … And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.  Ecclesiastes 1:2, 17-18

I prefer the older translations’ use of the word “vanity” to the “meaninglessness” in some newer translations.  “Vanity” better communicates the intellectual and moral hubris that the author of Ecclesiastes perceives in himself.   This great lover of wisdom, traditionally held to be King Solomon, understands that everything he has done in the name of wisdom has delivered him to this very moment of realizing just how unwise he really is, and how much suffering he has generated in his conceit.

It can be so tempting to see this unmasking as a regression, a failing and falling back from previous excellence, or a “curse” of the mind and ego-defenses not being quite as sharp as they once were.  Yet I sense that there is more to this process than the inevitable fall of a house of cards.  It feels providential, and so the words of King Hezekiah seem fitting:

But what can I say?   He [God] has spoken to me, and he himself has done this. I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul.  Isaiah 38:15

It is therefore not only conceit that has brought me to such moments, for I see that I have actually been asking for it in countless ways; “asking for it” in the colloquial sense of ignorantly inviting the natural consequences of my actions, but also asking for it in a very literal sense.  After all, seeking wisdom and understanding through meditation and prayer must mean that my own foolishness and ignorance will increasingly be revealed, at least to me.  Yet I don’t think it is only me that witnesses this baring of my soul, because as I become less able to keep up the old façade it more easily cracks and crumbles before others.   And so, as with King Hezekiah, the public embarrassment and private shame of my ego is a constant prodding toward a more genuine humility.

One of the interesting things about this humbling, if not humiliation, is that, despite all the fatigue, grief, and disappointment, it brings a great sense of gratitude and relief.   It is impossible for me to be completely honest with myself about my shortcomings without also seeing how fortunate I am to have not made even more suffering for myself and others.   I can’t begin to count the number of serious traumas and tragedies that have been narrowly missed, and I am so thankful for this with regard to others, especially those most dear to me. That relief is amplified by the freedom in not feeling so compelled to keep up the old façade.

While I often sense a divine grace in this good fortune, as a mystic I am also graced with having come to know that God holds none of my weakness and folly against me.   Without merit, I have been immersed in a baptism of Light and experienced communion with the One Love in which we all live and move and have our being.  To continue in the words of King Hezekiah:

Lord, by such things people live; and my spirit finds life in them too.  You restored me to health and let me live.  Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish.  In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back. Isaiah 38:16-17

My sins may not yet be finally behind my back, but I know that the memory of them offers not only pain, but also a reminder that my own wisdom and understanding, no matter how inspired, will never be perfect as I have at times secretly fantasized.  Perhaps more importantly, such self-awareness stimulates my compassion for those who struggle in similar ways.

God, please help me proceed in humble gratitude and continue leaning on faith, hope and, above all, Love. Amen.

Agape

 

 

Feb 112012
 

One thing I find extremely interesting is how Jesus is most typically portrayed in Western religious art, and especially in previous generations.  He is soft, thin, gentle; our kind teacher and merciful healer.  According to our contemporary stereotypes, he is remarkably effeminate!

Jesus meek and mild 1 Jesus meek and mild 2 Jesus meek and mild 5

Granted these are ethnically inaccurate pictures, and they aren’t typical in the Orthodox tradition, but they are the norm in the West for both Protestants and Catholics.  In any case, this pacifist, inclusive, forgiving, emotional, penniless Jesus, apparently also without spouse or child, hardly provides a respectable role model for the stereotypical macho American male.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not saying this is the only way Jesus should ever be portrayed.   It’s important that we not ignore the Jesus who was a hardworking builder’s son, who stormed the temple, who boldly called people out for their hypocrisy, who didn’t run from his accusers.  Certainly there is a lot of dynamic and assertive strength in the Son of Man, not that those are uniquely masculine qualities.

What I mean to do is pose some questions: What has happened to that old iconic image in the mind of modern Americans, especially men?  How would most American Christians respond to a man like the traditional Jesus shown above appearing today and claiming to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life?  How have so many of us come to ignore the nobility of Jesus as a man who was heroic in large part because he refused the role of warrior?

It’s quite clear that many of us Christians prefer the vision of Christ portrayed in the Book of Revelation, the Divine warrior-king who comes to swing a sword (or pull a trigger, or drop a bomb) against all those who aren’t on the “right team.”  But is that image one we should emulate?

apocalyptic christ

That picture of Christ is as the Lord of Vengeance that many Christians have hoped and prayed would come in their lifetimes.  This is the Christ who seems prophesied to violently defeat all those who have not repented and accepted him as Master, and to extract even more than eye for eye and tooth for tooth from those who have opposed the faithful.   It’s not my purpose here to refute that vision of Christ’s return, but to point out that (even if its literal reading is an accurate portrayal of the Second Coming) intolerance, vengeance, hostility, and violence are nonetheless not what Jesus calls for in the meantime.  Instead, he teaches the exact opposite. (Matthew 5; Luke 6:17-49)  We are therefore not to make the warrior-king Christ of Armageddon a model for Christian life, let alone a model for masculinity.

So the last question I want to pose is this:  How would our society, and the world, be different if we fully celebrated and emulated the Jesus of the Gospels as a role model for masculinity?

Please do not consider these questions to be merely rhetorical.  I really am interested in your responses.

Agape

Apr 062011
 

In part 2, we considered the possibility that Satan – the voice of selfishness and the temptation to take the east way out – led Jesus to confront his own sense of existential emptiness and spiritual hunger.  In doing so, it was suggested that Jesus experienced compassion for all others who suffer not only with physical hunger but with these deeper issues, and that he also realized such challenges are not best answered through temporary acquisitions the way physical hunger is by physical food. To attempt satisfying our spiritual needs in such ways would be to put economic power above faith.   It was further suggested that Jesus realized our emptiness and spiritual hunger are not wrongs to be righted, not lackings to be eliminated, but are instead natural symptoms of our freedom and the will to live it.  There is liberation in welcoming and embracing them.

For the second and third temptations, I will offer an expanded hypothetical dialogue between Jesus and Satan.

The Second Temptation

The Adversary’s next pitch, this time for political power, amounts to something like this:

Okay, Jesus, you’ve realized your freedom and your will to do something meaningful with it.  You care deeply about all of humanity, and you realize economic power isn’t the ultimate answer.  After all, a full belly doesn’t solve all the world’s problems, does it?  So think about this:  You could fulfill the prophecies of the Messiah and rule all the nations of this world, and in doing so you could command things to be whatever you wish.  You could end all wars, stop oppression of the weak and the righteous, put an end to hunger for everyone, and make the world a utopia.  Just imagine!  The New Jerusalem!  Heaven on earth!  Now that’s something the Son of God should do, right?

This proposition has got to sound pretty good to Jesus, and we can imagine it would be an even bigger temptation than pursuing economic power alone.  But then Jesus hears something to this effect:

Of course, the rub is that all these ignorant human beings were created with free will, which means not everyone is going to want to get on board with your plans.  Unless you want rebels and insurgents undermining everything you do, you’re going to have to make everyone want to get on board.  And, to be blunt, the only way that’s going to happen is if you acknowledge the fact that it’s my spirit running the show down here.  I mean, Jesus, just look around!  Distrust, selfishness, temptation, manipulation, violence – these are things that really move people!  Embrace these principles and, with your powers, you’ll have the whole world eating out of your hand, and the rebels and insurgents be damned! Literally! Hahahahahaha!

Jesus doesn’t fall for it.  Tyranny isn’t the way to peace and love, and so  he responds:

It is written: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”

Jesus has realized the wisdom that a 20th century bard would express in this way:

There is no political solution to our troubled evolution. Have no faith in constitution. There is no bloody revolution. We are spirits in the material world.  (“Spirits in the Material World”, by the Police, written by Sting)

The Third Temptation

The voice of Satan doesn’t miss a beat:

Okay, okay, so it’s a religious solution you are here to provide. I can dig it!  So come with me.

Whether in a vision or in actuality, Jesus finds himself atop the temple in Jerusalem.

Look at all those people down there, thirsty for God’s grace,  hoping and praying for miracles, and making sacrifices because they believe they have to appease a jealous, angry, vengeful Father.  And no wonder!  This living hell is a long way from the Garden of Eden, and there isn’t a soul down there who doesn’t know guilt and shame.  I’ve got to hand it to you – you’re right that no amount of money and no king is going to cure those diseases.  What people need is to actually see that God really is with them right now, loving them just as they are, and that they can welcome that love and let it live through them. But what is it going to take to wake them up, Jesus?  If preaching, prophecy and rituals were enough, then things clearly wouldn’t be in such a mess, would they?

No.  What they need is just what they are praying for – a miraculous sign that makes it obvious God is among them.  If you could pull off a great miracle like that, one that would prove beyond any doubt you are the Son of God, then surely everyone will listen to you.  They’ll know how divine you are and that you speak the truth.  All believers will recognize you as the Great Shepherd, and you’ll have the kind of power to change lives that priests and preachers only dream about or pretend to have.  You could show everyone the way to peace and harmony, and they will listen because they will have seen for themselves that you and your Father are one.

Nothing would prove who you are and open the way for the one true religion better than beating death itself!  Jump off of here and let what is written in the scriptures be fulfilled. Let the angels do their duty and catch you in front of all these witnesses!  Go on! It will be a glorious and awe-inspiring event that all of humanity will remember for all time!

Then, slowly and softly, almost in a whisper, the Accuser adds:

And, if you’re not the Son of God…? Well, then you’ll die quickly in a supreme leap of faith and be freed from all of this mess anyway.

So, what do you say?

Jesus answers:

The Scriptures also say, “You must not test the Lord your God.”

This statement may seem fairly simple, but it communicates more than may be apparent at first glance.   Let’s not forget that a temptation is not tempting if one does not feel tempted.  So how is it that Jesus feels tempted?  If, as so many in the Church believe, Jesus knows beyond any doubt he is the one and only incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, if he knows he is possessed with the most miraculous of divine powers, if he knows his path is to offer himself as the Paschal Lamb for all of humanity, then wouldn’t he know that he would survive to complete his mission?  If all of that were true, then how would throwing himself off the temple be a temptation to him and a testing of God?  This act would be tempting to Jesus because Jesus himself is very aware of his humanness and uncertain of the extent to which he is specially divine.  The voice of temptation keeps digging at him, “If you are the Son of God….”  It would be a test of God to prove, once and for all, who Jesus is, and perhaps not only to prove it to everyone else, but also to Jesus himself.    If this is not Jesus’ experience, then there would be little to no temptation or test of God in this moment atop the temple.  In the end, it seems Jesus decides to heed the laws of nature, gravity in this case, and trust God will work through him in other ways.

But what if this line of reasoning is off target and Jesus is quite certain the angels would catch him?  Why wouldn’t he add that miracle to the list of others he’s going to accomplish?  Perhaps Jesus knows such an act would only reinforce the perception that God is most with those who are born special rather than with everyone, including the poorest, the meekest, the sickest, the least of humanity.  Maybe he knows it would only make him seem more an object of worship than a teacher to emulate.  Maybe he knows that kind of confusion is already destined to become a bigger distraction from his message than he would prefer.  Perhaps he knows that even people who might witness such a miracle wouldn’t believe it, and that some of those who at first believed would in time doubt their own experience.  Maybe he knows it would very soon become another point of religious argument and division rather than one of faith and kinship.  It seems reasonable that Jesus could have foreseen all these things and, whether or not it would be a test of God, the temptation to prove God’s love through some grand miraculous event just will not send the messages he wants to send.  In the end, it seems Jesus finds the promise of religious power to also be more of a distraction than an aid to helping people welcome and live with Divine peace and love.

Mar 202011
 

The First Temptation

The first temptation centers on Jesus’ hunger, and at the very least it is the physical hunger he feels due to his fasting. Consider that fasting is a spiritual discipline, a practice taken on in order to cleanse and strengthen one’s soul, and we have a better idea of why the Spirit led him into the wilderness.  Anyone who has taken up such a practice knows the inner voice that offers excuses to take the easy way out, to give in to our desires for immediate gratification and temporary comforts rather than persevere in our devotion to greater principles.  That’s the first role in which the character of Satan makes his appearance, but what could Jesus possibly want that would give Satan an avenue to tempt him this way?  Is it merely physical hunger? As we saw in part 1, it’s not too hard to imagine that Jesus is concerned about the risks he knows await him if he follows through with challenging the authority of religious, political and economic powers to come between us and God’s peace.  So it is that I think his encounter with hunger leads Jesus to specifically face the challenges of the economic powers in his own psyche.

In both societal and personal terms, economic powers are concerned with acquiring wealth not merely for the basic needs and comforts of wellbeing, but for protecting oneself and one’s acquisitions, for the power to help and influence others, and also for indulgence in luxuries.  In his own hunger, Jesus must sympathize with the hunger of others.  It surely occurs to him that he can turn his energies, whether miraculous or not, to the development of economic power, all with the very noble intention of improving the lives of the poor and hungry.  Such a temptation would likely be amplified by knowing that his life and the lives of his loved ones can be made much more comfortable by taking a nice percentage all to themselves.  Perhaps in these thoughts he is not unlike many of us who aspire to make a living through philanthropy and humanitarian service.  Yet Jesus holds fast, reminding himself that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” After all, it was not in a shower of coins that God’s love descended upon him after baptism, but as a dove of  spiritual peace.

None of this is to say that economic power is in itself evil, or that we must all follow a path of poverty like Jesus, although arguments have sometimes been made for both ideas.  To me it seems a simple fact that we all need and want things economic power enables us to more easily acquire, while most of us would also agree that we can pursue such things to excess, and that to do so usually, if not always, becomes destructive in some way.  Despite the universal nature of such temptations, in the most immediate sense we are each alone in feeling them, alone in deciding how we will respond, and alone in our accountability for our decisions.  This does not mean that no empathy, understanding or support is available from anybody else, but simply that nobody else can step into our skin, into our souls, to directly encounter and manage what we’re facing.  The desire to escape the reality of that aloneness and responsibility is often what fuels a pursuit for physical and emotional pleasures to excess and even addiction.  Thus we see that vices of economic power have at their root an anxious sense of inadequacy, an existential emptiness, and an often unacknowledged spiritual hunger, all of which we try to soothe with things like drugs, food, possessions, and experiences of all sorts, including personal relationships and the acquiring of knowledge.

So, through the discipline of fasting alone in the wilderness, Jesus has put himself on a collision course with an opportunity to realize the significance of emptiness.  When it arrives in full force, his key realization is that the greater issue is not his physical hunger, which could easily be satisfied with a piece of bread, but rather it is a deeper hunger that we all share and that no amount of “bread”, literally or figuratively, can ever satisfy.  But what could possibly satisfy such an emptiness and hunger?

In some versions of the New Testament, Jesus is reported as saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”  This statement is a more complete reference to  Deuteronomy 8:3, which is found in the context of an admonishment to live according to the commandments of the Torah.  So a common interpretation of Jesus’ words is simply as a declaration of the importance of scripture, but there is more depth available to us.  Deuteronomy 8:3 draws a direct connection between the word of God and manna, which by the time of Jesus had long been used as a symbol of spiritual nourishment received through God’s grace.  This latter inference is most consistent with one of the central teachings of Jesus upon his return to civilization, which is essentially that the spirit of the law supersedes the letter.  In short, God’s love is our most essential spiritual nourishment.

It’s easy enough to give a religiously correct answer like “God”, or something with even broader appeal like “love”.  But if that’s all there is to it then there should be a lot less trouble in our world with angst about our emptiness and spiritual hunger and with the economic vices such angst can breed.  It seems clear that a faith based solely on doctrinal assertions isn’t enough, and here is where we find more relevance to the practice of mysticism.  While they have many differences, one thing agreed upon by existential therapies and the mystical traditions of many religions is that emptiness and spiritual hunger are facts of our being we all share, and they cannot be eliminated through any of the usual means of seeking security and comfort.  From this point, a further agreement is that, rather than trying to fill our emptiness and spiritual hunger, we must somehow accept them and come to some kind of peace with them.  By being still in meditation and mindfulness with our perceived lacking, and giving up the presumption that we can correct it, even giving up the idea that it is a wrong that needs to be corrected, we can begin to realize our emptiness and hunger not so much as a lacking, but as an openness to the countless possibilities of a wonderful mystery in which we all share.  The emptiness can thus be welcomed as our freedom, our liberation, and the hunger as our will to live it.  In learning to love our emptiness and hunger in this way, we find ourselves prepared to receive the contemplative realization of a more profound unity with the Transcendent Mystery we Christians call “God”, and this unity is Light, Life and Love itself.  The emptiness is realized as fullness.

We’ll examine the second and third temptations of Jesus in part 3.

Mar 152011
 

As often happens, another chain of synchronicities has brought a theme to the forefront.   The comments of friends and acquaintances, and my own recent experiences (including an Ignatian-type exercise related to the beginning of Lent) have highlighted the issue of aloneness for those who intend to follow a mystical path.  Over the coming weeks, I will address this theme in the context of Jesus’ own experiences of aloneness.

For just a few moments, imagine yourself as Jesus, being baptized in the Jordan by the charismatic preacher of repentance and righteousness, your cousin, John.  The water flows over you, and as you lift your eyes up to the sky you receive the Holy Spirit’s message that you are God’s beloved child.   In that moment you know you have a special mission to teach about rebirth to the peace of God’s infinite love, and to do so at all costs.  Somewhere deep inside you sense just how radical and threatening that mission will be to the powers of this world – political, religious, economic – and, at the base of it all, to the powers of the vices in the human psyche.  You have seen for yourself what such powers have done with people who were too radical, and what the final costs will likely be for you.

Retreating to Encounter Self

Is it any wonder that the Holy Spirit would lead you directly out into the wilderness to fast, meditate, and pray about this calling?  A thoughtful and cautious person might think: “Am I really up to this?  Do I really have what it takes?  I had better take some time to double-check myself, my motives, intentions, and desires, before I try to take on that kind of responsibility.”  I believe Jesus probably had such thoughts, that he walked off into the wilderness not only knowing he would be tempted, but to actually discover and deal with his temptations, allowing God’s prosecutor to put him on trial; in essence, Jesus was putting himself on trial.

Many of us have heard sermons making it seem as though Satan’s temptations were little more than formal confirmations of Jesus’ divine wisdom and commitment to his mission as the perfect Lamb of Atonement.  It is as if there were no true temptations, just staged opportunities for a barely human Jesus to prove a rebellious Satan’s foolishness.  Well, I don’t buy it.  Unless Satan is less insightful than the average con artist, he wouldn’t waste his time offering temptations that weren’t really temptations at all.  I see Jesus’ experience as parallel to the trials God allowed Satan to inflict upon Job, which were a real test of Job’s faith in the justice, mercy and love of God, a real test of his own commitment to actually hold fast to them even when it seemed God was being anything but just, merciful and loving.  As with Job, Satan’s job is to test Jesus where he is most vulnerable and, being a different man with a different life, he is tested in different ways.

So it is that by reflecting on the temptations Jesus faced alone in the wilderness, we get a deeper look into the psyche of a real human being, one with whom we can relate and feel a real sense of kinship and togetherness.  I believe that in doing so we can find his example far more inspiring and encouraging than that of a man’s body merely being used by the Creator like a sock puppet.  In part 2, we’ll consider the first temptation from this perspective.

Feb 062011
 

jesus-sweating-blood-in-gethsemaneThis is a perennial topic in spirituality, and Christian devotion is certainly no exception. We have our ascetics who have glorified the value of suffering to the point of practicing the most extreme forms of mortification.  We’ve had clergy and elders who have directed the faithful to always quietly submit to whatever abuses, cruelties or injustices they may have suffered as trials of faith.  I’ve heard of Inquisitors who went into raptures of ecstasy at hearing people cry out to God as they burned at the stake.  Mother Teresa allegedly did not allow patients in her care to receive pain medication because she believed it was so important for people to suffer with Christ.

As mystics we seek to know union with God, and to live in accord with our faith in and knowledge of that union. How does suffering, our own and that of others, fit into this context?

The Roots of Suffering

Let’s avoid the temptation to slip into distraction with ontological tail-chasing about why suffering exists at all.  My preference is to begin by simply accepting the existential reality, and from that place begin considering what meaning it has for me.  And, before going further, it may be helpful to note that there are two general classes of suffering:  The first is the basic experience of physical and emotional pain immediately resulting from loss, injury or disease,  and the second is the additional suffering we create for ourselves with our mental responses to the fact or possibility of such things.  While this post has relevance to the first class of suffering, it is actually the second class that is of primary concern.  That sort of suffering is something we have more opportunity to prevent or transform, and not only for our own benefit but also because it so often spills over into the lives of others.

It first occurs to me that suffering reveals our illusions, or at least our attachments to them.  It is actually our resistance to accepting illusions for what they are that causes so much of our distress and dis-ease in life.  Sometimes this happens when we get what we thought we wanted, only to find the reality is significantly different from our dreams.  Sometimes it happens because of the experience of impermanence and our vain struggles to preserve what was.

“Attachment” and “impermanence” seem to be key words here.  It’s simple enough to see how our desires to keep and hold what pleases us must always be thwarted by the reality of impermanence here in this world.  A deeper truth of this is that we tend to define ourselves through our attachments, though we might not realize it, either on the whole or with specifics.   But anyone who has experienced a significant loss – like the death of a loved one, the breakup of an intimate relationship, the loss of a career, an ability, a reputation, a home, or even membership in some group – to some degree knows that anxious sense of having lost something of the self.  Sometimes in these situations we even ask ourselves, “Who am I now?”

So we can see how in the depths of such suffering one often, if not always, perceives a blow to one’s own self-concept, and there is little to nothing we want to protect and preserve more than the self-concept; it is simply the survival instinct, if nothing else.  The truth, however, is that the personal self is temporary.  It is always changing and, despite a more or less constant sense of a “me”, that “me” is obviously never precisely what it was a little while ago.  It is memories of “me” that largely form the collage each of us habitually relies upon for a self-concept, the patchwork emblem we have of the present “me”.  So at best the self-concept is a fluid theory or working hypothesis of who and what we have been and are becoming in this world.  At worst it is an illusion we mistake for a concrete actuality, the psychological equivalent of an idolized statue standing on fragile clay feet, destined to eventually be broken.

The Transformation of Suffering

I think this issue is close to the very core of the mystical impulse.  On the one hand suffering urges us to desire the eternal, to identify with it no matter how paradoxical that may seem.  On the other hand we are drawn to the fleeting unique beauty of impermanent things.  Is there an unresolvable opposition here that begs us to abandon one for the other?  There are many ways we can respond to this juxtaposition, but it seems the general tone of Christian mysticism is to focus on Love.  For us, the value of suffering can begin to be found in its revelation of our illusory attachments and reminding us of our obsession with protecting and preserving the self-concept.  We are thus provided the opportunity to transform temporal suffering from something to be fled at all costs into a catalyst for more fully knowing eternal Love.

Among other ways, people have tried to define Love as the very principle of union itself, the reintegrating power that resolves oppositions and dissolves separation into oneness.  However, when two or more join in love, another one often arises from them.  So it is with all forms of Love as we know it, and so it is that the principle of union is never the last word on the meaning of Love.  Love transcends the duality of separation, union, and the birth of the new.  It is in Love that we know and rejoice in both the eternal, transcendent mystery of non-duality and the temporal ever-becoming, ever-passing wonder of the relative world.

So, for Christian mystics, what are the implications about the suffering of others?  First and foremost it is a reminder of our shared humanity, and that awareness combined with the focus on Love naturally delivers us to compassion, kindness and service.  Yet, as the human heart and mind strive to express something of Love, it is often said that one can only love another to the extent that he or she loves self.  It’s easy to get the idea that one must place self-love first and foremost on some sort of love agenda, as if we would otherwise have less Love to offer others. On the other hand, much has also been said about forgetting self in the love of others, as though time spent in loving self always robs others of Love. But these distinctions reveal our fear that there is some absolute limit to our ability to express Love, if not a limitation in Love itself; it is an assumed lacking that reduces infinite Love to a temporal commodity rather than an eternal good.  Notions such as these are veils on Love’s transcendence of all dualities, for genuine love of self and genuine love of others each have the effect of magnifying the other, despite the suffering that may be intertwined with them.  Like mirrors facing one another, notions of giver and receiver evaporate into the infinite depths of their shared reflection. And so it is that in expressing compassion and kindness in response to the suffering of others, we become a unique temporal flowering of the transcendence of eternal Love; we actually participate in the mystery of the Incarnation, and thus, in the language of our tradition, shine as the light of Christ in this world.

 

Jan 052011
 

To paraphrase something one of my spiritual teachers once said: “Sometimes ego and Spirit seem to point in the same direction.  Be wary of allowing your distrust of ego to prevent you from following what you believe is the guidance of Spirit.”

Sometimes we find ourselves at a crossroads and can’t clearly sort out the various motives and intentions in our desires to move in some direction.  To oversimplify, we can find ourselves uncertain as to whether or not a particular turn would be driven more by ego or by Spirit, more in selfishness or in selflessness.  When we are at such an intersection, it can be tempting to choose inaction, fearing that our motives and intentions aren’t pure enough, or that our judgment isn’t true enough to ensure that our actions are righteous, healthy, or good enough.  So it is that we become stuck in our want for clarity and confidence.  It’s as if we are waiting until we can sufficiently quantify the various factors to plug into an equation that will solve the problem, or until circumstances appear to force movement in a particular direction.  Yet discerning the urges of the ego from the call of spirit is not really a matter of mathematical calculation, and doing only what external factors drive us to do is often just a strategy to play it safe and have a ready-made excuse if things go wrong.  So we can see that to fully and joyfully engage life is a matter of wisdom that transcends ordinary logic and a matter of courage that transcends playing the odds.

Wisdom

Of all wisdom’s attributes, the awareness of how to be most loving is central.  There are various ways of attaining such wisdom in Christian practice, but for now let’s note two broad approaches:

  • psychological – examination of the self, with the aim of becoming thoroughly familiar with the various factors of the psyche and ways they interact with each other, both internally and in relationships;
  • mystical – opening to the infusion of Divine Wisdom, which is, in effect, a way of trying to remove the personal elements of the psyche from interfering with the action of God’s love in and through us.

We can then divide the methods for both of these approaches into those that are more internal or external.  Yet, at least for an incarnate human, there is no real separation between the internal and the external; these two realms are as interwoven for us as the rays of light traveling back and forth between a candle and its reflection in a mirror.  It is further suggested that the psychological and the mystical approaches to wisdom are just as interconnected, and thus both must be involved in the work of spiritual formation, illumination, sanctification, or theosis.

Please understand that I am not addressing the possibility of Divine Wisdom expressing itself through a human soul without regard to any personal disposition.  Considerations of that possibility lead beyond the scope of this post.  The present aim is instead to consider how we can most fully engage life.  To that end, Jesus taught, “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thine understanding; and thy neighbour as thyself.” (Luke 10:27)  He further said, “anything you did for even the least of my people here, you also did for me” (Matthew 25:40).  These two passages indicate that Christian life includes a responsibility to integrate every aspect of our being as fully as possible in the realization – internal and external – of love.

We can become more attuned to wisdom psychologically and mystically, and thus our ability to experience and express love, to be an instrument of the absolute within the relative is enhanced.  But attaining wisdom is not as simple as having a book of rules and answers to reference; it is a matter of hard-won experience and the grace of inspiration or infused contemplation.   Furthermore, to the extent that we find our wisdom lacking, or the risks of serving wisdom seem to mount, we discover that wisdom alone is insufficient for being as loving as we might.

Courage

Another teacher once said: “Concern yourself more with the presence of love than with the absence of sin.”

Both the attainment and the enactment of wisdom require courage, which is simply the willingness to take risks.  If we never test ourselves and knowingly take the risks of being in error, then we do risk stagnating, growing in neither wisdom nor courage.  That observation is likely to be patently obvious in the most mundane contexts, but it is also true in religious and spiritual life.  Many of us spend our lives with hidden lights, stifling our potentials and putting on a show of meekness that is really a mask over our anxious self-torment in the fear of sinning (“missing the mark”) before God or offending our fellow human beings.   This choice can also be about protecting our pride, slyly avoiding the possibility of having our ignorance, foolishness and vices laid bare, even if it is only to oneself.

This anxious state of being is tragically ironic. On the one hand it connects with a deep sense of genuine humility, while on the other it is confounded by a powerful desire to hide one’s ignorance and vulnerability.  It belies a denial of faith and hope, a refusal to trust that we can, with God’s help, make the best of our mistakes.   It is succumbing to the fear that our sins are not, will not, or cannot be forgiven; and it is being blinded with the misunderstanding that the only remaining option is to attempt minimizing the multiplication of our sins by putting our spirits to sleep and waiting for death.  In actuality, this burying of our talents compounds the irony of this state of being because it entails a willful missing of the mark set by Jesus and his Apostles, who joyfully went about acting in ways that were widely considered sinful and taking the most serious of social risks.

Joy

When we speak of joy in this context, we are not speaking of it in the sense of great personal elation or sensual pleasure, but rather an abiding sense of peace, freedom and assurance.   It bears a kind of childlike innocence and comfort that can remain with us even when we are doubtful and suffering in many ways. It is the Spirit’s lasting affection for the beauty of life, even when the personality is most disappointed with the world and its own existence.  In Christian terms, this attitude is a gift of grace to which we can awaken through the heart-centered embrace of faith and hope in the Good News, opening to the infinite love of God revealed through Christ in us.   It is not that our faith and hope bring that grace upon us, but rather that through them we recognize and welcome what was already present.   In short, joy is the sense of liberation we feel as we more fully realize the presence of God’s loving grace in our lives.

One of the greatest experiences of liberation in this joy is the letting go of fear, gaining trust that we are not doomed to damnation for our sins.  This confidence gives us more courage to take risks, to make mistakes, to accept their consequences and learn from them, and thus grow wise as serpents and harmless as doves.  By continuing this renewal of our minds and the “proving” of God’s will, the ego’s voice becomes more harmonious with the voice of the Spirit; joy is further realized, courage further overcomes fear, and love’s evolution naturally spirals wider open within us and out into the world through our lives.

A Caveat

As beautiful as this process sounds, it should be clear that greater blessings often come with greater challenges.  It is with this thought in mind that the picture of St. John Bosco was chosen to illustrate the face of joy.  His pictures always shine with his characteristic smile, and he was known for his commitment to gentleness and kindness despite the poverty, injustice and violence he personally suffered and bravely confronted in society.  Other exemplars whose great spiritual joy has been accompanied by great personal suffering are the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., countless saints, and certainly Jesus and many of his Apostles.  So it would be foolish to presume we have, at least while here in this present world, ever evolved beyond the experience of fear and pain.  We must all pass through our own Gethsemanes and hang upon our own crosses.  And then, even if we should momentarily be lifted into some beatific transcendence of the ordinary human condition, love leads us back into our humanity through broader reaches of compassion, “feeling with” the suffering of others, calling upon us to respond with wisdom, courage and joy.

Dec 212010
 

For a few weeks I have been ruminating on what I would post for the Christmas season, and then it finally came to me: Who owns Christianity? Who has the authority to codify what it does or does not mean to be a Christian, or regulate who can or cannot call themselves Christian, let alone who is permitted to be Christian?

Recent discussions with dear friends have once again brought to my attention how easy, how seductive, how unconsciously reflexive it can be to think and speak with labels, such as “Christian” or “Christianity.”  As labels, these terms serve as a kind of shorthand conveying a wide range of assumptions and generalizations about the person or persons to whom they are attached.  Sometimes we even label ourselves in this way.  The use of labels also easily taps into my personal beliefs and value judgments that accompany those assumptions and generalizations, and thus stimulates emotional reactions and attitudes toward the person or persons I have labeled.   Almost invariably, these processes occur semi-consciously, and I do not realize that in the process I have dehumanized somebody.  I do not realize that I have started treating a person as an abstraction that I am judging as right or wrong, and thus about which I am either comfortable or uncomfortable.  I do not realize that I have forgotten she is a unique child of God, a one-of-a-kind gift of Love to this world, like that little child in Bethlehem.  I may not ever realize that I have missed an opportunity to welcome, understand, accept, value and coexist with her, to love him, as that precious gift.   One of the ironic things about this pattern is that I do it despite how much I dislike other people doing it, which reminds me of Paul in Romans 7:15.

I know what it feels like to be the object of someone’s labeling, their stereotyping, and how it can harm the potential for us to care for each other as two whole and fully present human beings.   Some of the most troubling labels I’ve experienced are “Christian” and “bad” or “false” Christian.  Even “good” or “true” Christian can be troubling, and perhaps even more so!  The baggage that comes along with identifying as Christian can be enormous.  Many non-Christians automatically assume I fit their stereotype, which seems to be an increasingly negative one that prevents them from being open to anything more than a superficial relationship.  At worst, it leads some people to instantly take a distrusting, defensive and hostile position with me because they are certain that I am going to be judgmental, narrow minded, prudish, condescending and proselytizing.  On the other hand, fellow Christians often automatically assume I share most if not all of their beliefs and attitudes about things, or fit their own stereotypes of “Christian”.   When it’s discovered that I don’t fit their expectations, it’s not unusual for them to act like they are shocked and offended or threatened, as though I have personally challenged their own sense of identity, and then they put me in some other box.  I know I am not alone in these things, and it’s probably safe to say that you have also been painfully aware of them at times.

Experiences with the Christian stereotypes, and having seen myself in all the roles, have repeatedly led me to wonder about the value in calling myself Christian.  Of course, I do it for a number of reasons:  It is my native religious culture, and its symbolism, ritual, lore and language were being poured into my psyche even before I was born.  Through childhood, adolescence and early young adulthood it remained the primary milieu in which my ideas about self, other human beings, and the world took shape.  As I explored other traditions in adulthood, and now well into middle age, despite my willingness and attempts to let it go, Christianity has remained a constant reference point.  These experiences, combined with a growing understanding of how the psyche works in general, and mine in particular, led me to realize that, of all the world’s spiritual traditions, Christianity has the greatest potential to serve as a bridge between the consciousness of my adult personality and the childlike presence deep in my heart.  I came to realize that I just can’t help it that Christ’s love is the spiritual ideal that most inspires me.  I, this adult named “Chuck”, didn’t choose for all of these things to happen, but I do choose to accept them.  I am a Christian because I embrace the reality that the spirit and traditional forms of Christianity permeate my being; it is my religious home.

No matter how much doctrinal testing, prooftexting or Bible thumping anyone might do, nobody can take away my Christian identity, and in that sense I own it.  I also own it to the extent that I accept responsibility for the never-ending process of determining what Christianity means to me, and what it means for me to be a Christian.  In these ways I own Christianity for myself, and in doing so I realize and respect the right of every other Christian to do the same.  But, as noted earlier, I must also admit that even I can’t take my Christian identity away from me.  In many ways it is bigger than me, not controlled or possessed by this personality named “Chuck”, and so I can no more own it than the air I breathe.

Yet I don’t think that is where this issue of ownership stops.  As you might have been expecting from the moment you read the title of this post, if anyone rightfully owns Christianity it must ultimately be God through Christ.  Furthermore, as all creatures are God’s children, I believe we are all heirs and co-trustees of Christianity, just as we are with the air we all share, whether we consider ourselves Christian or not.

And the messenger said to them, `Fear not, for lo, I bring you good news of great joy, that shall be to all the people — because there was born to you to-day a Saviour — who is Christ the Lord….  (Luke 2:10-11, my emphasis)

Emmanuel!

Merry Christmas!