Has “God” been Co-opted?

“Patience means trusting God’s timing!”  These words are currently emblazoned on the sign in front of the Calvary Baptist Church in Twisp.  It really struck me today driving past how closely aligned they are to my own tag phrase “Trust in Being.”  In fact, I find myself quite frequently nodding my assent to the signs they have posted there, resonating with their deep truth.

Not surprisingly, there is a vast ideological landscape between me and the Baptists.  Or me and any organized religion.  I’m what retired Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong calls “church alumni.”  And yet, as time goes by and I undergo my own deep internal healing around the nature of the divine, the ideology moves further and further from the map, at the same time closing the driving distances between me and other “believers.”

I grew up in a beautiful Episcopal church in Glassboro New Jersey, St. Thomas’.  The church dates back to the end of the 18th century.  It’s a charming stone building with stained glass windows and old style wooden pews with remnants of graffiti dating to its early days. The church sits in a grove of old growth trees and has a small cemetery, and I can easily conjure up the feeling of the place in each season: midnight mass at Christmas with its candle light and incense, Easter’s altar piled with lilies, its cool interior in summertime and the clusters of fallen leaves in autumn.  A lot of important things happened on my inner journey in that church, things for which I had no language in childhood, nor really any support.

It wasn’t until my awakening that I rediscovered my devotional nature.  At a workshop with Waking Down teacher, Krishna Gauci, after a gazing exercise, I felt a profound and familiar awareness in my chest as if my heart had enlarged and with it the volume of blood it pumped so powerfully; it wracked my chest, and my shirt visibly rose and fell with each beat. It was the same feeling I used to get at communion. Feeling into this, the tears poured forth bringing with them a slew of embodied memories of my childhood devotion. When I was in high school, my family took a vacation to Bavaria where my mother had grown up, and her uncle took us to every church in driving distance.  There, I met many forms of the crucified Christ including one in chains that was said to bleed once a year on a holy day.  I hung postcards of nearly every one in my basement bedroom.  There was an eros to it, a feeling of what I now see as mystical communion, a desire to be one with His suffering.

By the time I graduated high school, church became optional, and my attendance fell away.  As I moved through college and into graduate school, I found myself at odds with the doctrine of organized religion particularly around sexuality, which severed the ties that had been so conscientiously nurtured.  They lacked the depth of feeling and discernment to continue to seek within the bounds of Christianity for succour.  Instead, like many of my generation, my gaze turned to the east, to yoga, and west, to “sex and drugs and rock and roll,” so that by the time I landed in middle age, I was suddenly aware of a spiritual hunger so deep and unexplored that it could no longer be ignored.

In spring, Waking Down founding teacher, Saniel Bonder offered a telecourse called Christing 2.0 that drew heavily from the book The Meaning of Mary Magdalen by Cynthia Bourgeault. And one night’s discussion addressed a variation onthe question I raised in my title: has Christ been co-opted?  Many of us were feeling a renewed ownership of Christ and as a result of Christianity.  It’s given me a new vigor for this old love, a new language and relationship with the Christ as a central figure of western spirituality.

The nature of God is unfathomable.  It doesn’t care what we call it: He, She, It, God, Being, the Absolute.  It contains everything and is contained by everything.  In this moment and these days, I feel a continual deepening of trust in that which is.  Call it God. Call it Being.  But call It.

Controlled Burn

Yesterday, the forest service started a controlled burn somewhere in the Okanogan Forest that surrounds the western end of Twisp River Road where I live.  It was a high moody sky already yesterday afternoon, a little muggy with the smell of rain in the air.  By the time I finished having coffee with a friend at Blue Star, cool winds were tousling the pewter clouds, and the smoke from the burn was a concentration of grays tinged with black up over the hills.  It did rain a little, and the temperatures fell back down into the 50s by night fall. This morning, the air smells like Gouda cheese or a wet camp fire, or a little of both.  It’s not unpleasant, but it’s different from the sweet clear spring fragrance of lilacs and greenery that usually greets me.

Controlled burns are essential to forest management.  They take out what would be fuel once the dryer weather and fire hazards of the summer season start.  This morning, this feels like a good metaphor for spiritual work.  I’ve been reading the Yoga Spandakarika: The Sacred Texts at the Origins of Tantra with commentary by Daniel Odier. The Spandakarika, which translates to “The Song of the Sacred Tremor,” says in verses 4 and 5: “All the relative notions tied to the ego rediscover their peaceful source deeply buried under all the different states.  In the absolute sense, pleasure and suffering, subject and object, are nothing other than the space of profound consciousness.”  

In his commentary, Odier says “For a Tantrika, an emotion–for example, sadness–is a prelude to joy. The idea that the world was created and that one day it will be destroyed is unfathomable because we see the creation/destruction process as a perpetual cycle.”

Over coffee yesterday with my friend, we were talking about relating with difficult people, and she said “it’s all just patterns.”  And my whole Being nodded vigorously with this.  What’s so beautiful about the Spandakarika is its focus on the spherical nature of things, what Odier describes as “the manifestation of any emotion and its withdrawal.” The way the world is always being created and destroyed over and over in the vast imperceptible ages or yugas described in the Vedas.  Or the geological and biological history of the earth.  Or look at the film from the Hubble telescope trained in on a piece of “blank space” the size of a grain of sand.  You’ll see a mind-blowing illustration of “the space of profound consciousness.” Focus your own inner Hubble on the vastness of your consciousness, and see what worlds it contains.

When we commit ourselves to a deep and ongoing investigation of our nature, we’re bound to discover the need for the occasional controlled burn.  The old patterns that are still with us, lurking under the upswept branches of our highest selves, are fuel to both fire change and inflame our emotions.  While we’re still in this relatively moist spring, before the dry heat and volatility of summer, turn the magnifying class of investigation on the twigs of your unresolved issues, and let the burn clear some space for new growth. 

Leaning into Impalement, or Emotional Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection

We are entering the time of the astrological Grand Cross and at the same time the Christian commemoration of the Crucifixion.  These events are shadowing each other, shadowing us, as we each experience our own human suffering.  It’s been said that there is no hierarchy of suffering.  It’s also been said that suffering is unnecessary pain.   When does pain become unnecessary?  The thinking goes that it’s when we add to it by prolonging it.  And yet, there’s a fine line between prolonging pain by choice and prolonging pain by necessity.

There’s a powerful urge in us to get away from pain.  It’s a natural part of the body’s program to save itself.  If your shoe rubs, you take it off.  And yet when life rubs, it’s not so easy to take it off.  An article in the New York Times from 2008 called “The Urge to End It,” says about people who took their own lives, “They had wanted their inner pain to stop; they wanted some measure of relief; and this was the only answer they could find. They were in spiritual agony, and they sought a physical solution.” 

A young friend of mine who took his life earlier this month is said to have told his therapist that the way he dealt with his suicidal ideation was to walk right up to it as close as he could get until the urge dissipated.  The last time this happened, he kept walking.

Spiritual agony.  Inner pain.  Some measure of relief. This is the cycle of emotional crucifixion, death and resurrection.  I don’t mean to justify my young friend’s death.  I can’t.  It is something that happened and not just to him.  It happened to a hundred of us who were his family, friends and acquaintances.  But it also represents a way of leaning in to what is profoundly difficult.  For him, the leaning in ended his physical life; we can’t know if it ended his spiritual pain.  Inasmuch as the body is the highly sensitive organ of perception, it’s arguable that destroying it destroys the stimulus and feeling of agony.  Sadly, it also ends the opportunity to come through the other side of the particular difficulty that took him off the side of a bridge.

Since then, an image of a painting by Frida Kahlo has been with me, of her being impaled by the beam of a street car she was riding in her teens, an injury that plagued her throughout her life and also gave rise to her particular “poetics” of imagery.  As I watch the show of human horrors that unfolds daily in the newspapers, I am aware of the way each story is a kind of goad, and how much easier it must feel to turn the page, read the ads, follow the Yanks.

But if we lean into difficulty, lean into the impalement of our difficult experiences and feelings, there’s a way in which they open up a spaciousness in us at the deepest level of Being.  It’s as if the leaning in, the piercing of the heart, also inoculates us, leaves a trace of its DNA, a sort of psychic homeopathy that I’ve been thinking of as “informed spaciousness.”  Once we let it in, no matter how painful it is, we also let it out.  If we lean with all our weight on the goads of our suffering, then they will come through the other side.

Twice recently, I came across the term “organic Shrapnel,” a term from war that refers to pieces of other bodies that pierce a living person’s flesh.  It’s gruesome and it happens.  It feels to me like an apt metaphor for the way we experience our own individual pain and suffering in this life.  A parent’s or sibling’s or mate’s “explosion” sends up parts of themselves that puncture us.  Like their counterparts in the material realm, they sink deep, fester and begin a journey through the underground of our psyches toward expulsion and the light.

This is the season of rebirth.  The mystery religions, of which Christianity is surely one, are based on this cycle of suffering, death and resurrection.  Can we embrace the mystery?  Can we lean into our suffering, not to prolong it but to allow it to puncture the protective shell we’ve built up around our hearts?  Can we embrace the Shrapnel, trust that as we lean, we will learn, and our compassion will deepen?

Cynthia Bourgeault in her powerful book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, writes about the act of “substituted love,” in which those who have emptied themselves of personal will and opened to the Divine are able to fully take on the emotional burdens of others.  To kneel at the cross, to wait at the tomb is to receive the vision of the resurrection.  I invite you, at this time of deep transformation, to be both the Christ and the Magdalene.  To lean into the pain and await the release that will carry you to rebirth.


Poetry and Porousness

I want to write about two topics today that are related, at least to me, in this way that I am exploring both spirituality and poetry in this blog.  If you’re only interested in the spirituality part, it will be easy to jump down to it below in bold: Porousness.

Last night, I went to a poetry reading by three women at Fergie’s Pub in Philadelphia.  The trifecta are all related to Bryn Mawr College and know each other from there.  JC Todd who teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr and two former students, Darla Himles and Elizabeth Catanese.  I know JC from our years long affiliation with the Dodge Foundation. Elizabeth is my particular friend from the English Department at the Community College of Philadelphia, and Darla is Elizabeth’s long time friend from her Bryn Mawr days.  I say these things to indicate that this is not an impartial review of the reading but a personal response.

Elizabeth Catanese read first, and to me she was the star of the show, not just because she’s my friend and some of the poems were polished in the informal workshop we used to do in my office lunch for a couple of semesters.  She has a luminosity both in her person and in her poems.  They feel to me like the perfect conversation among head, heart and gut.  She and Darla Himles meet weekly at the Philly Trolley Car Diner and give each other prompts that they they write and revise.  So both readings went, as Darla said, from citrus to crabs.  Both read a poem about Audrey Hepburn and a lemon, it was the first in both of their lineups.  Darla Himles is a bit like Hepburn, a gamine with a cap haircut with sly eyes and a sparkling smile. Her poems are linguistically interesting and smart.  I admired them very much, the way Hepburn’s Holly Golightly admired the wares in Tiffany’s window.  But somehow they did not strike the same chord of yoga, if you will, as Catanese’s, by reaching into my heart and belly, not all the time anyway.  Third on the roster, the main act, so to speak was JC Todd.  JC reminds me somewhat of Marianne Moore–not least because last night she wore a hat, one that belonged to her husband’s grandmother, a black felt affair with a red feather.  She passed it around to raise money for a charity, a sweet touch.  Her poems have the high polish of many years of craft, and they are intricate and intelligent on the ear.  Her most impressive selections were from a series of Petrarchan sonnets about the Iraq war.  They’re sort of prose sonnets in that they tell the story of a woman medical officer’s experiences in Iraq, and they were bold, bloody and embodied.  They called to mind the still amazing sonnet sequence novela by Ellen Bryant Voigt called Kyrie about the influenza epidemic in 1918 -19.

There was a good crowd for the reading.  The upstairs at Fergie’s is small, and by the time the reading was underway–following a set by the musical duo Attractive Nuisance, who were wonderful–there was standing room only, and had the Fire Marshall come up, he would have been a bit concerned as to whether we would have been able to extricate ourselves without trampling. But we were lucky in that; the only fire was in the words.

Now we come to the Porousness part.  For me to be in a room packed with strangers is an exhausting experience.   I find that I am soon saturated by the energy of so many people pressed so close together, which is why I don’t go out much.  I feel a bit like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth.  As if I have fallen into another world where, although I’m dressed like everyone else and look like them, my body beneath my disguise is a skinless sensitive thing all nerves and receptors.  I both can and can’t  bear it.

In the beginning, I sat quietly until I was joined by a woman who is a painter and photographer, connected to the reading by a sequence of relationships that have to do with making poems from art, ekfrasis.  Like me, she said she does not go out much.  I introduced my self as Subhaga, which led to a conversation about how I got my name (from Amma), and a short Q and A about my spiritual background.  We talked about meditation, awakening and painting in nature.  It was sweet.  Then we sat in companionable silence while the room filled beyond capacity and the noise rose, and the mic for the reading had to be turned continually louder to compensate for the sounds from Fergies’ downstairs room where the business of drinking and shouting was well underway.

Energetically, I was able to stay in the paradox of the noise,the crowd and the silent spaces in the poems.  I had set the parking meter for 90 minutes, which I hoped would be enough time to hear what I had come to hear.  But there was also an inner parking meter ticking at the same time as the one outside.  The energetic meter for my capacity to be surrounded by so much human contact, each person with his or her transmission field, his or her anger, sorrow, grief, disappointment.  Because, friend, beneath the disguises we all don to move around the world, in search, like the Bowie character, of clear, fresh water, the thirst to be met rises out of a Sahara of the soul.  This being human is, after all, as Rumi says, like a guest house, constantly being visited by the difficult relative, some who come and never leave.  For me, to be in this bath of human suffering damped down beneath a snappy demeanor and sated with draft beer and pub fries is exhausting.  I’m the sponge that soaks in all that pain.

In the car, in the cold, at 13th and Sanson, I sat for a moment while someone idled off my drivers’ side door wondering if I was ever going to give up my spot.  I waved her on and breathed the frosty silence.  I felt into my body laced with exhaustion.  I dialed up my friend the GPS lady to take me home–even though on some level, of course, I know the way–a sort of autopilot to allow me to bring my focus to the act of navigation.  It was a bright starry night, and as I made my way through the inexplicable logjam of cars on the Schuykil Expressway back to Bryn Mawr, I began to unwind into the spaciousness that is always within me.   I came home, greeted the dog, drank two liters of water, and read a few pages of Molly Gloss’s Wild Life then fell into a deep and unbroken sleep for 9 hours.  Mine is a big battery and it takes a long time to recharge.

Have Faith that there Is a Purpose

Don’t let the bitter seeds take root.
They’ll suck the life from you,
bear bitter fruit.

And bitter fruit holds bitter seeds
that fall from rot and grow to weeds.
Save them to string like beads,

and let your fingers count the rounds.
Or would you rather choke them down
to find that bitterness can’t be bound?